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Will Alabama slip this year? Gators, Miami will decide that.

The Gators and Hurricanes both get cracks at the Crimson Tide in the first three weeks. That’s a scheduling break for the state’s top two teams.
Alabama's early schedule has a strong Florida flavor, which means big-time opportunities for the Gators and Hurricanes.
Alabama's early schedule has a strong Florida flavor, which means big-time opportunities for the Gators and Hurricanes. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]
Published Jul. 21

HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban will get no sympathy for what he calls “the penalty for success” his Crimson Tide must face, again.

Ten players off last year’s national title team were drafted. Six of them went in the first round. His offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, left to become the head coach at Texas.

Related: Why Tampa helped Steve Sarkisian get back to college football’s top tier

The attrition in Tuscaloosa is nothing new, of course, but this exodus was larger, and potentially more disruptive, than usual. If it’s going to lead to any setbacks — if that penalty for success is going to show up on the field — it will probably happen early.

And Florida will be in position to benefit.

The Crimson Tide open against Miami on Sept. 4 at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Two weeks later, they travel to Gainesville for a rematch of last year’s 52-46 SEC title game.

Two blockbuster games. Two chances for this state to make a statement that it’s on its way back to the top of the sport.

Related: We ranked all 78 Florida college football games from worst to first

“Early on in the season, I think it will be a good challenge for us,” said John Metchie, the latest in Alabama’s revolving door of superstar receivers.

Alabama receiver John Metchie is the latest star receiver for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama receiver John Metchie is the latest star receiver for the Crimson Tide. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]

The early part is pivotal. ‘Bama is breaking in a new quarterback, five-star talent Bryce Young, plus seven other new offensive starters. First-year offensive coordinator (former Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien) hasn’t coached collegiately since 2013. During SEC media days Wednesday, Saban went so far as to say his team would be “a work in progress” with so many new faces and early road challenges.

Saban, of course, has reloaded his lineup with a roster of blue-chip recruits, including former Bloomingdale High receiver Agiye Hall. Saban’s idea of a work in progress is almost every other coach’s idea of a dream roster.

But that doesn’t mean his team is impenetrable. It wasn’t in 2015.

Without a returning starter at quarterback, ‘Bama chose Florida State transfer Jake Coker for the first two games but switched to the more mobile Cooper Bateman against Mississippi in Week 3.

It didn’t work. Bateman struggled, and Alabama lost by six. Saban and his staff learned from that mistake and started Coker the rest of the way en route to another national title.

Jake Coker quarterbacked Alabama to the national title in the 2015 season.
Jake Coker quarterbacked Alabama to the national title in the 2015 season. [ DAVID J. PHILLIP | AP (2016) ]

Does this mean Miami and Florida are going to upset Alabama, a preseason top-five team? No. But it does mean that they get a scheduling break by facing the Tide before they have time to figure out how best to use their new personnel.

There are other reasons for optimism, too, if you want to see them. Some of Saban’s few losses have come against mobile quarterbacks like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. The Gators and Hurricanes both have one. Assuming Miami’s D’Eriq King returns to full health from a knee injury, he’ll be one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country. UF’s Emory Jones is unproven overall but established as an elusive runner.

Despite Miami’s defensive struggles last season, Manny Diaz has Alabama’s attention. Saban said he has “a lot of respect” for what Diaz has done over his career.

Related: Nick Saban has ‘a lot of respect’ for Miami Hurricanes, Manny Diaz

“I know they’ll have a good defense,” Metchie said. “They always have some exotic calls on defense, so I’m definitely excited to play that.”

The other state game adds a different level of excitement. Alabama hasn’t visited Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in a decade. If UF gets past Florida Atlantic and USF unscathed — a good bet — the Gators should have a massive, amped-up home crowd at one of the most intimidating road environments in the country.

“That’s something I always watch on ESPN, how the atmosphere is there,” Tide defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis said. “I dream of playing in games like that, so I can’t wait to get out there just to see how their fans are, the electricity and all that.”

The ‘Canes and Gators should be looking forward to those games, too. It’s their chance to knock off the sport’s juggernaut and prove they’re on their way back to becoming one themselves.

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