The Alabama Crimson Tide enters the 2016 season as unequivocally the nation’s top team, leading every preseason poll. That Alabama, the defending national champion, is expected to once again dominate its regular season slate is nothing new.
While a meeting with Southern California is a tantalizing way to open the season, there’s reason to believe Alabama won’t have any difficulty getting through the Trojans: Alabama hasn’t lost a season opener since UCLA in 2001. In fact, since Nick Saban arrived prior to the 2007 season, the Tide has won each season opener by double digits, by an average margin of 27.3 points.
Three teams could give them trouble, however, impeding the Tide’s run to the program’s fifth national championship of the past decade.
Last season’s loss spelled the end of Leonard Fournette’s seemingly clear-cut march to the Heisman. The nation’s top rusher (at the time) was held to 31 yards on 19 carries; it was the only game in which he didn’t amass at least 90 rushing yards, and was jarringly lower than his 162.8 yards-per-game clip.
“They had eight in the box,” he said after the loss. “Every time I ran the ball I could see out of my periphery the safety is coming down. Their game plan was to stop our running game. I think they did a pretty good job at it.”
The team reloaded with one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, brought in former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda — who will be implementing a 3-4 base defense — and returns 17 starters from a season ago. Aranda’s defense is known for drawing up exotic blitz packages; worth noting, then, are three sacks LSU tallied against the Tide last season.
This could be the first season under Saban that a true freshman started under center, and any added pressure could pay dividends.
Calvin Ridley is one the most electric talents in college football, which means secondary play will be pivotal. Luckily for LSU, Jamal Adams is one of the better safeties in the Southeastern Conference, with a team-leading 10 passes defended last season
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Alabama has a 34.3 percent likelihood of winning, the lowest of any game this season. Each team’s FPI rating is composed of a predicted offensive, defensive and special teams component, with preseason projections heavily weighting returning starters, last year’s performance, and recruiting rankings. The win probability comes from simulating each season 10,000 times, and while a 34.3 percent win probability for the consensus best team in the nation might sound low, consider that FPI was the third most successful ranking system last season out of the 130 tracked on Kenneth Massey’s website.
The Volunteers have largely failed to meet any expectations placed upon them over the past decade. Butch Jones, however, has shown improvement in back-to-back seasons, and last season’s nine wins were the most for the program since 2007.
Joshua Dobbs is one of few proven quarterbacks in the conference returning, and his dual-threat challenge is a conundrum for any defense. Last season, as Pro Football Focus noted, his 160.9 elusive rating — which factors in missed tackles and helps quantify a runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers — was 46.2 points higher than that of running back Paul Perkins, who was the highest-rated player at his position.
Pair Dobbs with Jalen Hurd, one of the best running backs in the nation, and you’ve got a formidable ground game. Hurd starts fast, which will be critical against the Tide; 480 (37.3 percent) of his total rushing yards last season came in the first quarter. Alabama allowed 342 first-quarter rushing yards a season ago, the most of any quarter.
Tennessee returns 17 starters, making it one of the most experienced rosters in the conference. Defensively, Derek Barnett is an absolute nightmare for an offensive line; he earned Pro Football Focus’ highest pass-rushing grade among Power-5 edge defenders last season. Jalen Reeves-Maybin ranked 23rd among returning linebackers in grading, according to Pro Football Focus.
Furthermore, this offense has steadily become more potent each of the past three seasons, jumping from 23.8 points per game in 2013 to 28.9 in 2014, and to 32.5 last season. Defensively, the same holds true: 29 points allowed per contest in 2013, 24.2 in 2014 and 20 last season. In short: this team is trending upward.
Alabama has a 41.1 percent likelihood of winning, the second-lowest of any game this season.
The Tide’s first true road test — the season opener against Southern California is at a neutral site — is also its first conference game.
Traveling to Oxford, Saban will seek to end a two-year drought against Ole Miss, a team that historically has paled in comparison (Alabama is 47-11-2 all-time against Ole Miss). Last year’s 43-37 loss marked the first time in program history the Tide dropped two straight to the Rebels; it was the first win for Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa since 1988. The loss was the only blemish on Alabama’s 2015 résumé.
Quarterback Chad Kelly, the man many assume will earn offensive player of the year honors, will decide the outcome. His junior campaign was on the of the best seasons for an SEC quarterback ever: 4,551 total yards (third most in SEC history), 4,042 passing yards (most in SEC), 31 touchdown passes (most in SEC). And his 87 quarterback rating is nine points higher than any other returning quarterback in the conference.
He’s fearless in the pocket, too—a quality needed in a quarterback if a team hopes to knock off Alabama (see: Johnny Manziel); he tied for the most touchdown passes of 15-plus-yard throws of any Power-5 QB last season.
Ole Miss returns just 10 starters, but should have enough offensive weaponry to give the Tide defense fits, keeping the game tight. In last year’s win, the Landshark defense held the Tide scoreless at home in the opening quarter, the first such occurrence since 2012.
Nobody’s expecting Ole Miss to lead for the entire game as it did last season, but keeping it tight gives Kelly an opportunity for a memorable moment. And there are few quarterbacks this year that a defensive coordinator wants to hand that opportunity to.
This matchup is Alabama’s third-toughest of the season, with the Tide given a 51.2 percent likelihood of winning.