This year's SEC West race appears to be one of the most wide open in history. Almost every team in the division goes into this season with at least some realistic hope of winning the division. OK, A&M and State's hopes are a bit more far-fetched, but they still aren't outside the realm of possibility.
Actually, last year looked a lot like this in the preseason, in which a two-loss SEC West champ seemed like the most likely possibility. It almost happened, too, but LSU couldn't close out Alabama despite having the ball inside the ten yard line with under two minutes to play. Alabama won the game, and then the division with a 7-1 record because, well, it is a little known SEC rule that Bama must finish with a 7-1 record.
Alabama has finished the season with a 7-1 conference record in four consecutive seasons. That's a record of stunning consistency that no program can match (though Oregon comes pretty close, with one 6-2 season keeping them just off the pace). We can talk about the West being more competitive until we're blue in the face, until Bama dips below 7-1, this is their division. The question then is, could this finally be the season Alabama takes a small step backwards?
The Tide isn't suddenly going to be non-competitive or anything. A step back means 6-2 or 5-3, not an utter collapse. Bama went 5-3 back in 2010 and it didn't mean the end of the program or anything. But this season seems like the best chance for a slip up for Alabama in quite some time.
Alabama is ridiculously talented. Every single player on the roster was part of a recruiting class ranked #1 in the nation, so let's not pretend that they won't be able to find athletes in Tuscaloosa. That said, LSU fans are intimately familiar with how much attrition can hurt a program. While Bama has not had quite the losses LSU has had to the draft, this season is shaping up to be a tremendous rebuild of the roster.
According to the CFB Matrix, Alabama ranks 97th in nation in returning starts. They rank 12th in the SEC, and 13th if we don't count kickers and punters. The losses are particularly strong on offense, where Bama returns just 43 total starts, by far the lowest in the SEC.
Alabama loses 48.8% of its rushing yards and 73.3% of its receiving yards from last year's production. Bama also will be breaking in a new starting QB this season, as Coker has all of 59 pass attempts on his resume, mostly in mop up duty.
The defense is, to be fair, in far better shape and will be asked to carry the Tide this season. They lose only 36.68% of the total tackles and 28.61% of the tackles for a loss. This is a defense coming back about as fully intact as one can reasonably hope for, and will be the rock of the team's success...
...but here's the thing, the Alabama defense was the worst it has been in quite some time last year. Remember, this is relatively speaking. Alabama ranked 3rd in the SEC in scoring defense with 18.4 PPG. The season prior, the defense ranked 1st and allowed 13.9 PPG. That was the most points an Alabama defense had allowed since 2008 (14.3 PPG). 2008 was also the last time that Alabama did not have the #1 scoring defense in the SEC. From 2009-2013, Alabama had the top scoring defense in the SEC every single year.
Alabama allowed 4.87 yards/play in 2014, ranking 5th in the SEC. FIFTH! Why don't you take a guess the last time Alabama did not lead the SEC in yards/play? Yup. 2008, when it ranked 2nd, allowing 4.30 yards/play. Again, Alabama had the best defense in the conference from 2009-2013, and finally slipped slightly last year.
Now, this is not to say Bama's defense is now bad. Most teams would be thrilled to rank 3rd in scoring and 5th in yards/play. However, when you've ranked #1 for half of a decade, this counts as a decline. Alabama needs the defense to bounce back to its usual dominant self as the offense finds itself, and there is a chance the defense will merely be "very good" instead of "absurdly dominant."
Margin of Victory
It is an old truism that the mark of a great team is the ability to win close games. Only, it's not true. Great teams don't win by close scores, they win by blowout. 1990's Nebraska didn't beat you by a single score, they beat you by 20 or more points. Alabama recently has been the same. Alabama's season long scoring margin has gone from 347 in 2011, to 389 in 2012, to 315 in 2013, to 259 last season.
Now, a +259 scoring margin is still awesome. It is, however, Alabama's lowest scoring margin since, of course, 2008 when they posted a +222. The point here is that Alabama's dominance has been slowly slipping, even though it has not appeared yet in their record. If Alabama plays at this quality, it is only a matter of time before they go 6-2. Alabama does not need to hold steady, they need to improve to stay at the same record.
The biggest obstacle for Alabama this season is not breaking in a new QB or restocking its receiving corps, it is the most difficult schedule they have faced in the Nick Saban era. Alabama has benefited from Tennessee's long decline, as their permanent rival has put up little fight. Now, this looks like the best Tennessee team since Fulmer was on the sidelines and while the Vols certainly aren't as good as the Tide, they will go into the game with a realistic chance of winning, which is more than you could say in some years. Tennessee is arguably the second best team in the East this year and the best? Well, that's almost certainly Georgia, who also appears on Bama's schedule. That is a monster cross-divisional schedule.
Throw in a season opener against Wisconsin, a team better than the usual mediocre Big Ten also-ran they have feasted on,* and the schedule looks that much tougher, even if it won't impact the SEC record. But then the West looks different than it has in recent years.
*Note: A really unfair way to describe Penn St. and Michigan, but it sure felt good.
There is no likely 0-8 bottom feeder like in 2012 and 2013. This isn't 2011, in which Alabama only beat two SEC teams with a winning record. The West is strong top to bottom, and every team feels like they can beat anyone else. Recent history even shows that anyone can beat Bama. The remarkable thing about their four straight one-loss seasons is that Bama has lost to a different team every team (LSU, A&M, Auburn, then Ole Miss). The division lacks the high end contender like 2011 LSU or 2013 Auburn, but there is a depth of contenders that makes it harder to win week-in and week-out.
This doesn't mean Alabama will lose. The smart money is to ride the one proven bet in the division to ride out this season's free for all. When you can't tell the contender, go with the team with the track record. However, this is the most vulnerable Alabama has looked going into the season in this decade. Alabama is still the team to beat, but this the best chance the division has to wresting control from them.
It's time to stop that metronome from ticking.