Expectations remain extremely high for the Alabama Crimson Tide ahead of the 2016 college football season as Nick Saban’s squad begin their quest for the program’s fifth national championship since 2009. Oddsmakers list the defending champions as the favorites at 7/1 odds, but the Tide are barely ahead of Ohio State (15/2) and Clemson (8/1) in what should be another tumultuous road to the College Football Playoff.

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has two elite weapons in tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Calvin Ridley, though questions linger at quarterback. Fourth-year junior Cooper Bateman is the frontrunner to start in the season opener, and will compete against sophomore David Cornwell and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. True freshman Jalen Hurts was rated No. 7 out of high school, and may have a decent shot at the starting job. Whoever wins the job may have to gain a quick grasp of the offense due to some crucial early matchups. 

To little surprise, Alabama should have a stellar defense. The unit is led by defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, perhaps the best defensive player in the SEC. Reuben Foster and Tim Williams are a force at linebacker, while safety Eddie Jackson leads the secondary. There are also big hopes for freshman linebacker Ben Davis, who was among the nation’s most coveted recruits.

While there are plenty of positives in Tuscaloosa, the program has also had its share of troubles this offseason. On Sunday, offensive lineman Alphonse Taylor was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, while All-SEC left tackle Cam Robinson and reserve defensive back Laurence Jones were arrested in May on weapons and drug charges.

Nick Saban Alabama 2015 Five-time national champion head coach Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are already eyeing 2017's College Football Playoff final. Photo: Getty Images

Tough Season Opener, Upset Candidate Looms

The season kicks off in Dallas, when Alabama takes on traditional power USC at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 3. The Trojans boast one of the most exciting players in the nation in Adoree’ Jackson, a wide receiver and cornerback who also might be the nation’s best return specialist. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is another big-play threat and a potential first-round draft pick. USC can also pivot to their running game, which has a potential superstar in sophomore Ronald Jones II and a legitimate threat in experienced senior Justin Davis.

But Clay Helton’s squad will have a new quarterback after Cody Kessler finished a solid senior season. Former high school standout Max Browne is expected to win the job despite some healthy competition from redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. The defense will be without star linebacker-safety Su’a Cravens, who made the jump to the NFL after his junior season.

Alabama was able to hold off Wisconsin in Dallas last season, and probably have enough to outlastUSC, but it will be a difficult test. Kiffin, who served as the Trojans head coach before joining Alabama, would no doubt love to get back at his former team, and should pull it out all the stops against a defense that lacks quality depth.

From there, Alabama should receive a break when they return to Bryant-Denny to face Western Kentucky, a burgeoning program but not one that should pose a serious threat. The Hilltoppers completed an impressive 12-2 record after defeating South Florida in the Miami Beach Bowl to finish the season at No. 24 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.

But coach Jeff Brohm must replace star quarterback Brandon Doughty and the defense is thinner than last season. Western Kentucky has the talent to pull off an upset, but don’t count on it. They were trounced last season by LSU in Baton Rouge and a similar fate is expected in Tuscaloosa.

Revenge For 2015

The SEC schedule begins with arguably the most contentious game of the season. Alabama travels to Oxford to face Ole Miss, the school responsible for the Tide’s lone blemish on an otherwise brilliant season. Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly completed a deflected 66-yard touchdown pass and threw for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to upset Alabama at Bryant-Denny, 43-37.

Hugh Freeze enjoyed his best season as the helm of the Ole Miss, and the Rebels are in the early conversation to reach the CFP with Kelly returning for his senior year along with defensive stars Marquis Haynes and Tony Conner. Yet a dark cloud hangs over the program, with self-imposed penalties that include scholarship reductions and three years of probation, due to a long-running NCAA investigation.

The Tide should come out inspired. A strong showing against the Rebels could do wonders for the team’s confidence, particularly for the three remaining road games.

A Relief In The Schedule

Home dates against Kent State and Kentucky should result in lopsided victories for the Tide. In 2015, Alabama defeated Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern by a combined score of 127-16 so holding off Kent State, a team coming off a 3-9 season, shouldn’t be a tough task. Kentucky should continue to flounder in the talent-rich SEC, and probably doesn’t have enough to pull off an upset.

Major Road Tests

The Tide hit the road again with games against Arkansas and Tennessee. Both games should be a challenge, beginning with the Razorbacks who return several senior starters on defense including star defensive end Deatrich Wise. However, head coach Bret Bielema will have a new quarterback in Austin Allen while losing leading rusher Alex Collins and top tight end Hunter Henry to the NFL. Arkansas will no doubt show flashes from last season’s impressive wins over Ole Miss and LSU, but upsetting Alabama might be a stretch.

The tougher challenge for Saban will be holding off an improving Volunteer squad that returns 18 starters. After a poor start marked by close losses, Tennessee won their final six games and nearly escaped from Tuscaloosa with a victory. The standout defense is led by NFL prospects Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton.

The running game should be one of the best in the nation, with star Jalen Hurd leading the way and Alvin Kamara coming of a better-than-expected 2015 season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has experience and should cause havoc for opposing defenses this year. Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will likely be studying plenty of game tape before this showdown.

Back Home Against The Aggies

Texas A&M has perhaps the best receiving tandem in the SEC with Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds, but the Tide should feel comfortable covering those playmakers after facing USC’s Jackson and Smith-Schuster. After an 8-5 season, Kevin Sumlin may be fighting for his job if the Aggies get off to a bad start, so a win over the Alabama could mean a great deal for the program. Texas A&M lacks a top rusher and star defensive talent outside of All-American defensive end Myles Garrett, which should mean Alabama cruises to a home victory.

Toughest Test Of The Year

After smothering Leonard Fournette in 2015, Alabama’s defense gets a second crack at the LSU offense but this time in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have 18 returning starters from a team that finished 9-3 and trounced Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. Fournette might be the most talented rusher in college football and should find plenty of holes on an experienced offensive line that includes Ethan Pocic, one of the best centers in the country.

However, the passing game is suspect and the defense will be making the adjustment to a 3-4 scheme. Les Miles still has plenty of talent to work with, particularly in the secondary, which should make this another tight game on the Alabama schedule.

What works in Alabama’s favor is the two weeks they will have to prepare. If there was ever a need for some rest before a big game, this is the one.

A Cooldown Before The SEC Championship

LSU stands in Alabama’s way from winning the West, but the Tide should at least take solace in a relatively weak final three games ahead of the SEC Championship Game. Though the Iron Bowl can be hotly contested, Auburn doesn’t appear to be fully prepared to bounce back from a highly disappointing season. Three quarterbacks will compete for the starting job and the ground game lost its best asset when Peyton Barber bolted for the NFL.

But Gus Malzahn has a very good defense and it should be bolstered by the return of lineman Carl Lawson from injury. Still, it’s hard to see the Tigers giving the Tide problems at Bryant-Denny unless the offensive line overachieves and special teams comes up with big plays.

Before the Tide face Auburn, they will meet Chattanooga, a program that finished 9-4 against soft competition, and Mississippi State, a program that most experts expect to finish last in the SEC West. Both games should end in blowout wins for Alabama.

damien harris alabama Running back Damien Harris should help pick up the slack for Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Photo: Getty Images

2016 Alabama Crimson Tide Schedule

Sept. 3 USC (in Arlington)

Sept. 10 WKU

Sept. 17 at Ole Miss

Sept. 24 Kent State

Oct. 1 Kentucky

Oct. 8 at Arkansas

Oct. 15 at Tennessee

Oct. 22 Texas A&M


Nov. 5 at LSU

Nov. 12 Miss State

Nov. 19 UT-Chattanooga

Nov. 26 Auburn

Dec. 3 SEC Championship Game (TBD)

Prediction: Repeating is always a difficult challenge in college football, and Alabama may be fortunate to reach the CFP with just one loss. The talent and coaching are certainly there, but opposing defenses will look to seize on the inexperience at quarterback. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Tide back in the CFP, but to crash out and miss out on the title game.

2016 Prediction: 12-2

2016 SEC Prediction: 7-1

Complete Alabama Roster

--  Alec Morris, QB           

1 Chris Black, WR          

3 Calvin Ridley, WR            

3 Bradley Sylve, DB      

4 Daylon Charlot, WR     

4 Eddie Jackson, DB       

5 Ronnie Clark, DB      

6 Blake Barnett, QB       

6 Hootie Jones, DB     

7 Tony Brown, DB       

7 Cam Sims, WR         

8 Robert Foster, WR           

9 Da'Shawn Hand, DL      

9 Bo Scarbrough, RB      

10 Reuben Foster, LB                  

11 Kendall Sheffield, DB     

12 David Cornwell, QB     

13 ArDarius Stewart, WR     

15 Ronnie Harrison, DB     

15 JK Scott, P         

16 Jamey Mosley, LB      

17 Adonis Thomas, LB      

18 Keaton Anderson, LB      

18 Cooper Bateman, QB     

20 Shaun Dion Hamilton, LB      

21 Maurice Smith, DB     

22 Ryan Anderson, LB      

23 Deionte Thompson, DB     

23 Jabriel Washington, DB     

25 Dillon Lee, LB      

25 Buddy Pell, RB      

26 Marlon Humphrey, DB     

27 Shawn Burgess-Becker, DB   

28 Anthony Averett, DB     

29 Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB     

29 Brandon Turner, RB      

30 Denzel Devall. LB

31 Xavian Marks, RB    

31 Nate Staskelunas, DB     

32 Rashaan Evans, LB      

33 Derrick Gore, RB      

33 Anfernee Jennings, LB      

34 Damien Harris, RB      

35 Walker Jones, LB      

35 Thomas Woods, WR     

36 Johnny Dwight, DL      

36 Torin Marks, WR     

37 Jonathan Rice, WR     

38 Austin Johnson, WR     

39 Paden Crowder, LB      

39 Tevin Isom, WR     

40 Joshua McMillon, LB      

41 Blaine Anderson, DB     

42 Keith Holcombe, LB      

42 Jacob Parker, TE      

43 Gussie Busch, LB      

43  Lawrence Erekosima, RB      

44 Levi Wallace, DB     

45 Hunter Bryant, TE      

45 Corey McCarron, FB      

45 Cedric Powell, DB     

46 Derrick Garnett, LB      

46 Michael Nysewander, TE      

47 Bo Grant, DB     

47 Christian Miller, LB      

48 Mekhi Brown, LB      

48 David D'Amico, TE      

50 Alphonse Taylor, OL      

51 Jake Long, DL      

54 Dalvin Tomlinson, DL      

55 Cole Mazza, LS      

56 Brandon Kennedy, OL      

56 Tim Williams, LB      

57 D.J. Pettway, DE      

58 Alex Harrelson, LS      

59 Dallas Warmack, OL      

60 Brandon Moore, OL      

61 Nolan Boatner, OL      

62 Will Davis, OL      

63 J.C. Hassenauer, OL      

65 Chris Posa, OL      

66 Lester Cotton, OL      

67 Josh Casher, OL      

68 Isaac Luatua, OL      

69 Josh Frazier, DL      

71 Ross Pierschbacher, OL      

72 Richie Petitbon, OL      

74 Cam Robinson, OL      

75 Bradley Bozeman, OL      

77 Matt Womack, OL      

78 Korren Kirven, OL      

80 Raheem Falkins, WR     

81 Derek Kief, WR     

82 Thayer Weaver, WR     

83Ty Flournoy-Smith, TE      

84 Hale Hentges, TE      

86 Truett Harris, TE      

87 Parker Barrineau, WR     

88 O.J. Howard, TE      

89 Brandon Greene, TE      

89 Bernel Jones, LB      

89 Armani Purifoye, WR     

89 JaMichael Willis, WR     

91 O.J. Smith, DL      

93 Jonathan Allen, DL      

94 Dakota Ball, TE      

94 Daron Payne, DL      

96 Stephen Hodge, DL      

96 Gunnar Raborn, PK      

99 Adam Griffith, PK