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No. 7 Alabama

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Friday, August 28, 2009; 12:00 AM

Last Season: 12-2 (lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl).

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Returning Starters: 12 (4 offense, 8 defense).

Key Game: at Mississippi, Oct. 10.

Why They're Worth Watching

Alabama once again has the defense to make it a contender. The Crimson Tide ranked third in total defense last season (263.5 yards per game). And with all but three starters returning to its 3-4 defense, Alabama should also give offenses fits this season. Alabama's linebackers -- particularly Rolando McClain, who made 95 tackles last season, and Dont'a Hightower, who will become a pass rusher on third down -- are among the best in the conference. Wide receiver Julio Jones burst onto the scene last season with 58 receptions, 924 yards and four touchdowns, all Alabama freshman records. But Jones isn't the only option: The Crimson Tide has 10 scholarship wide receivers on its roster.

Player to Watch

Terrence Cody, Sr., NG

Cody is hard to miss. The 6-foot-5, 365-pound roadblock is perhaps the most crucial element to the Crimson Tide's engulfing defense, which has helped make Alabama a contender once again. In his 12 career starts, opposing teams have rushed for 100 yards only three times.

Why They're Vulnerable

Like almost every team in the SEC, the weekly competition could simply wear out Alabama. Not only is the Crimson Tide's conference schedule taxing -- it plays at Ole Miss and against Louisiana State in its marquee matchups -- Alabama opens the season against Virginia Tech on Sept. 5 in Atlanta. If the Crimson Tide can make it through the conference alive, it could have the unenviable task of facing Florida, the overwhelming favorite to repeat as BCS champion, in the Southeastern Conference title game. The Crimson Tide is also thin offensively, breaking in a new quarterback and a new running back. Alabama also must replace three starters on the offensive line.

-- Mark Viera

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