THREE THINGS WE KNOW
This ain't 2010. The last time Alabama came into a season defending a national title with an offense this full of stars and as many questions about the defense might be 2010. The warning signs were there, and we all tended to ignore them and say Bama would win the title anyway. But there are a few key differences between that team and this one. The first is that, for the lack of returning starters along the defensive line in particular, the Tide still has seven returners on that side of the ball by the program's count. In 2010, the number of returning defensive starters for Alabama was two -- by far the fewest in the SEC. There are some big names missing from the defense this year -- like Dee Milliner -- but there's still a lot more there than there was in 2010. Something might lead to an Alabama loss, but it will likely be different than what knocked the Tide off three years ago.
They're out for revenge on Sept. 14. Just once has Alabama lost twice in a row to the same opponent under Nick Saban, and that was when they fell at LSU in 2010 and lost THE GAME OF THE CENTURY the following year. And we all know how that season turned out in the end. (There have also been a handful of times Alabama has lost and has yet to play the team again, including Florida State, South Carolina, Utah and ... let me check here ... Louisiana-Monroe.) And some of those revenge games have been brutal. The Tide responded to its 2007 losses to Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn with 41-30, 32-7 and 36-0 shellackings, respectively. (And 11 points or no, the game against Georgia was a shellacking.) The LSU victory was not as impressive. Alabama's SEC Championship Game loss in 2008 to Florida was followed by a solid 32-13 win in 2009. After Auburn beat the Tide in 2010, the Tide returned the favor with a 42-14 dismantling the following season. The win against LSU last year was, again, less impressive. The exception to the rule, you will note, is LSU. Nick Saban might say he doesn't want to blow out Texas A&M as long as he gets a win, but the record suggests otherwise.
The offense should be good and could be better. There are a few questions on the scoring side for the Tide -- which we'll get to in a moment -- but the pieces, at least, are there for a pretty explosive attack. AJ McCarron is back, as anyone who's looked at a Heisman watch list could tell you. All but one of the players with any significant number of carries return to the running game. Alabama gets its top four receivers back. Alabama was fourth in the conference last year, averaging 439.1 yards a game. (Bet you didn't realize it was that high or that the fourth-ranked team in the league would have that many yards.) The only thing that might hold the Tide offense back is if the team gets early leads and decides to just milk the clock.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
Who's going to get Eddie Lacy's carries. Whatever you want to say about how good T.J. Yeldon is -- and he's very, very good -- he can't take over for Lacy all by himself. Yeldon had 175 carries last season, and Lacy had 204. It's not impossible to have 379 carries -- Le'Veon Bell did it last year, and Stefphon Jefferson came close -- but it's also not generally a prescription for long-term health. (Montee Ball was the only other player in the NCAA's Top 100 rushers to carry the ball more than 350 times.) It's also probably not going to end up with Yeldon getting the 2,430 yards that he and Lacy got refreshing each other last year. The Tide's rushing game probably won't exactly be hurting either way, but it would be nice if someone (perhaps a freshman) emerges to help Yeldon.
How the offensive line will do. When a national championship contender is still experimenting with its offensive line less than two weeks before its season opener, that's cause for a small bit of concern. And that gets to the biggest challenge Alabama faces this year: replacing Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack along the offensive line. That's 126 career starts that walked out of Tuscaloosa after the win against Notre Dame. Again, it's not a reason to believe the Tide won't be able to make another run at the crystal football, but it is a reason for being cautious about handing them the trophy right now.
Whether they can and need to go undefeated. This is, of course, a question for each of the SEC teams hoping to make it to the national championship game. But in Tuscaloosa more than anywhere else, there is a tendency to view any season that doesn't end with a title as a failure. And it's not entirely clear that a one-loss SEC team will be able to make it into the national championship game; keep in mind that Alabama was No. 2 before the title game and undefeated Ohio State was not eligible for the BCS standings. (I know, this is not exactly an original thought, but it's worth noting.) It's going to be hard for any team in the SEC to go undefeated this year; for all the flak Alabama has taken in some corners for its schedule this year, it still includes games against Texas A&M, LSU, Virginia Tech and the SEC East winner if the Tide goes to Atlanta. If there are fewer than two undefeated teams at the end of the season, a one-loss SEC team is basically an auto-berth for the title bout; but there's at least a decent chance that there will be two lossless teams when the 2013 regular season comes to an end.