Yesterday, I promised a preview of Bama's schedule. I also said that I am not fond of prediction masquerading as analysis, so you won't get that. What I will do, however, is give my opinion of the relative talent levels of the teams compared to the talent level at Bama.
First, a quick talent analysis of Bama.
Strengths: Solid QB, potentially a very good offensive line, one very good wide receiver and a very solid WR corp, Simeone Castille.
Weaknesses: Weak defensive line with no steady playmakers, inexperienced linebackers, inexperience in the secondary outside of Dukes and Castille, need to find a playmaking running back.
Overrated: John Parker Wilson. I've read a lot of high praise of Wilson this offseason. Believe me, I don't think he's a bad QB. I think he's solid, but I don't think he's one of the best in the SEC. As I showed in a previous post, his school-record-setting season last year meant he was only an average SEC QB. Of course, he's now entering his second year as a starter, and it's not unreasonable to expect improvement. However, there are other QBs also entering their second years and had even less experience than Wilson, so they are also expecting big improvements. My expectations are that Wilson will again be a solid QB, but not All-SEC calibre.
Underrated: The offensive line. Everyone knows Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell are very good, but the line has had the odd distinction of being inexperienced two years in a row, but is now a solid veteran group. Smith and Caldwell may be the only real NFL talent there, but you don't need NFL talent to be a solid player. The offensive line should make holes for running backs and protect the QB solidly this year.
Alright, the opponents:
Western Carolina: Rent-a-Win
Vanderbilt: Watch out for Vandy. The talent level at Vandy is much higher than it has been in the past. Plus, they match up very well with Bama, because Bama will have a very hard time stopping the run this year due to its weaker defensive line and inexperienced linebackers, and Vandy runs a West Virginia-style offense with its QB Chris Nickson. If Vandy can figure out how to keep Earl Bennett away from Simeone Castille, he could run wild, as he is probably the best WR in the SEC.
I think this is a key game for Bama (and for Vandy). I think the winner goes to a bowl and the loser does not, regardless of who wins. While I think Bama has overall more talent, the game is in Nashville, and the talent gap is not wide. This is definitely an early-season game to watch if you are a fan of the SEC at all.
Arkansas: I think Arkansas is slightly more talented than Bama overall, and matches up very well with Bama due its incredibly strong running game. If Arkansas can rebuild its offensive line and give McFadden some holes, he knows what to do with it. I think the Razorbacks enter this game as a touchdown favorite (assuming they're healthy), and their Wildcat formation creates matchup problems all over the field.
It's a little-appreciated fact that Arkansas not only has a couple of great running backs, but also a great receiver in Marcus Monk. Once again, the key there will be keeping Castille on Monk and/or hoping that Arkansas fails to find a QB who can throw.
Georgia: Every team in the East is vulnerable, and Georgia is not an exception, but there is a lot of talent there. Matthew Stafford will be an excellent QB at some point. If that point is now, the entire East be in trouble. They also, again, have an excellent RB corp, but the offensive line is suspect. Georgia also lost some good players on defense. Georgia is, I think, more talented than Bama, but the matchup is not that unfavorable to Bama. This is a winnable game, but it certainly won't be easy.
Florida State: Very even matchup. FSU has talent, but has dramatically underachieved lately, and has lacked in QB play. The running backs are solid, and they hired Jimbo Fisher away from LSU hoping to cure their offensive woes. If that ploy works, and they have a more reliable passing game, their offensive will be dangerous. I don't know much about their defense, but I think this is a winnable game for Bama, perhaps the most winnable of this stretch from Arkansas to here. It's also a losable game. It's basically a 50-50 game at this point.
Houston: I don't know much about Houston, but I know they were 10-4 last year, beating Oklahoma State, Memphis, Southern Miss, and Rice, all of whom were decent. They also played Miami and South Carolina tough. If Bama had played Houston last year, I guess they would have had their hands full. I don't know about this year, because Houston has lost its great QB Kevin Kolb to the NFL, and lost some of its rushing power as well. I'm assuming that this year Bama will be much tougher than Houston, but I don't really know.
Ole Miss: Bama is better, but there will be no such thing as an easy SEC game this year. Once again, Bama will have to worry about a running back, as BenJarvis Green-Ellis had some good stats last year, but Ole Miss's overall rushing numbers were poor last year. Ole Miss also lost its two best defensive players from last year's team. Ole Miss wasn't good last year (though they took us to overtime), and I don't see much reason to think they'll be better this year.
Tennessee: This one could be ugly. Tennessee has a strong running game with Lamarcus Coker. That lack of a strong defensive line could make this a very difficult matchup. Eric Ainge is a good QB, but supposedly will be limited by injuries, at least in mobility, and he won't have the terrific receivers he had last year. They also have a lot of talent to replace on defense. Tennessee is vulnerable this year, but the matchup is really poor for Bama due to that running game.
LSU: Well, let's not even go there yet.
Mississippi State: Bama will be looking for a little redemption from last year. Honestly, MSU got stronger as the season went on last year, after starting out horribly, and this wasn't as big of an upset as it probably seemed. If Bama had played MSU early in the season last year, they would have won by 3 touchdowns.
Mississippi State is, if you can believe it, probably not as good as they were last year. They lost a lot on defense, which was the strength of their game. The offense won't be embarrassing like it was at the beginning of last year, but it won't be particularly good either. Michael Henig probably wouldn't be starting at QB for any other team in the conference (except maybe at their cross-state rivals), and the line won't turn into All-SEC calibre overnight. Any victory MSU gets in a conference game this year will be an upset.
Auburn: Auburn has question marks this year, particularly at Wide Receiver, but the skill level at Auburn is still a little better than the skill level at Alabama. They lost some offensive linemen, but I am reasonably confident they can find more. They lost Kenny Irons, but Brad Lester is probably better anyway.
I'm a big fan of Brandon Cox, who I think is a very good QB, but he has no targets to throw to. Auburn will have to find some quality receivers somewhere or they could take a big dip in offense this year. The defense will again be very fast and skilled.
So, I count five games in which Bama is the clear favorite to win. If they don't suffer a big upset in one of these games, that will eave them with 7 games against quality opponents, needing one win in those to be bowl-eligible, and 3 wins to really have a season that will satisfy some people (an 8-win season), and at least 5 wins to have much hope of making the SECCG. I think the SEC Championship Game is probably out of reach, but an 8-win season probably isn't though it will be tough to get that far.