USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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The hypothesis that suggests Auburn has dealt Alabama and Nick Saban a crippling blow ignores one crucial fact: Saban has sent more rivals packing than U-Haul.

Georgia and Mississippi State got the better of the Crimson Tide in 2007. The Crimson Tide are 8-0 against the pair in the year since, including a memorably dramatic victory against Georgia to claim the 2012 conference championship.

Tennessee drew within a winning field goal of knocking off Alabama in 2009, nearly derailing the Tide's run for the national championship. The last four meetings: 41-10, 37-6, 44-13 and 45-10. The Volunteers might want to consider meeting Alabama only on the fifth Saturday of October, not the third.

Urban Meyer and Florida got the better of Alabama once – once, and only once. One year after an SEC title game loss, the Tide sent Florida off to the Sugar Bowl and Meyer into a brief retirement; one year later, it was 38-10, a laughter, and Meyer was gone.

LSU got its comeuppance: Les Miles and the Tigers won the battle – an overtime affair during the regular season – but lost the war, with Alabama imposing its will in one of the dominant big-game defensive performances in college football history.

Or consider Utah, for example, the last team to knock off Saban-led Alabama in a major bowl. The Utes weren't the lone recipients of the Tide's wrath, which was instead shared evenly among the Football Bowl Subdivision – in the manner of three titles in four years, a latter-day dynasty.

So let's remember our history even as Saban's trudge across Jordan-Hare remains etched in our memory, or as we struggle to forget Alabama's sluggishly lackluster showing against Oklahoma in the postseason.

The Crimson Tide have been tested before, by teams and programs of Auburn's standard and pedigree, and each test has resulted in a similar conclusion: Alabama wins.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

Who is going to stop Alabama? Who will derail this run toward history? I'll tell you who stops Alabama: Alabama. Alabama stops Alabama, and that's it. Only the Tide can slow the Tide's run for another national championship.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: Imagine it's your wedding day – congratulations, by the way – and you're standing at the end of the aisle, smiling and happy, as you await the entrance of your betrothed. She's perfect in every way, obviously. It's the moment you've been waiting for. Here she comes. She looks great. She's almost here. She's steps away. Then your archrival swoops in, slamming through the glass doors and storming down the aisle, and takes away your beloved just as she reaches the dais, running 109 yards to his car and speeding off in the distance. This happened to Alabama.

High point: LSU, I guess, or maybe Texas A&M. But the low point was so low that it essentially negated any positive moments.

Low point: Auburn. Truthfully, I've always been more partial to Kick, Bama, Kick than Kick Six.

Tidbit: Alabama has had 15 first-round picks during the past five years and 13 during the past four years. In terms of total first-round picks by a single program during a four-year span, Alabama's total trails only Miami (Fla.), which had 19 selections from 2001-04.

Tidbit (double-digit edition): Teams play more games now than ever before, which is something to keep in mind as you consider the following: Alabama has won at least 10 games in each of the past six seasons, which breaks the record of five such seasons in a row set by Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide from 1971-75.

Tidbit (defense edition): Alabama's defense hasn't merely allowed the fewest touchdowns in the FBS since 2009; the Tide's defense has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the FBS with a bullet. Alabama's defense has given up 91 touchdowns during this 67-game span, while second-place LSU has allowed 127 touchdowns during the same span. I've done the math: Alabama's defense has allowed 36 fewer touchdowns than the next-stingiest defense in college football.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Alabama's toughest losses under Saban

1. Auburn, 2013
2. Auburn, 2010
3. Florida, 2008
4. Oklahoma, 2013
5. Louisiana-Monroe, 2007

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: There's a quarterback competition to settle – as we'll discuss below – but the Tide will surround the new starter with a sterling mix of linemen, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. In no area is Alabama deeper than in the backfield, where new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin – we all remember him – has the option of unveiling a tandem unmatched in college football: T.J. Yeldon (1,235 yards) and Derrick Henry (382 yards). Yeldon's a known commodity, thanks to his two-year turn as one of the key cogs in this running game, but it's Henry's off-the-charts potential, seen against Oklahoma, that could make this as effective a backfield duo as any during Alabama's surge back to the top of the FBS during Saban's run.

Add junior Kenyan Drake (694 yards) and it starts to get silly. The only question: How will Kiffin and this offense divvy up touches? Yeldon needs to get his; he's a Heisman contender for the second year running, and gives this ground game a tried-and-true runner to match with any back in college football. But Henry needs to see an increase in touches: Alabama must try to get him involved from start to finish, thanks to his growing familiarity with the details – protection, scheme, receiving – and, to be honest, a nearly incalculable degree of pure talent. And then there's Drake, and all the junior did a year ago was produce when given the opportunity – averaging at least 6.36 yards per carry in every game in which he earned at least four touches. Given Georgia's battles with health, Alabama's backfield must be viewed as the best in the SEC – and possibly the best in college football.

Likewise with the receiver corps, which touts a pair of potential All-Americans – wide receiver Amari Cooper (45 receptions for 736 yards) and tight end O.J. Howard – and a wide range of complementary pieces. Cooper's the wildcard; he's an All-American when healthy, as evidenced by his strong close to last fall after being slowed by nagging injuries in September and October. Howard, meanwhile, could be freed up to own the middle of the field thanks to senior Brian Vogler's ability to do the dirty work in the running game. The Tide will augment Cooper's production with varying degrees of experience: Christion Jones (36 for 349) and DeAndrew White (32 for 534) are supremely reliable, creating a hugely valuable top four in the passing game, but the receiver corps will need to locate a second tier from the group of sophomores Chris Black and Raheem Falkins and rookies Robert Foster, Cam Sims and ArDarius Stewart. This young slice of the rotation has fantastic potential – but could stand a year in reserve, so much does depend on keeping an elite top group healthy.

One thing to really like about the offensive line is how Alabama has options at the two positions retooling due to offseason attrition – at left tackle and right guard. Elsewhere, the Tide can tout three returning starters: Arie Kouandjio at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Austin Shepherd at right tackle. All three will earn all-conference honors, with Kouandjio in the mix for All-American accolades. As noted, the Tide can feel some security in numbers on the blind side and at right guard. A true freshman, Cam Robinson, will get the nod at left tackle for the opener; if he struggles, however, Alabama could turn to JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson, who may just need a firmer grasp of the offense before moving into an increased role. Though sophomore Alphonse Taylor will start at right guard, it may just be a matter of time before a healthy Leon Brown leapfrogs his way into the starting lineup. The line is again a strength.

Defense: This defense features another impressive mix of experience, talent and proven production, with the added benefit of one noticeable difference from last year's version: Alabama should feel much better about its secondary. This group – maligned a season ago, if you can recall, and occasionally picked to shreds – seems in far better shape, thanks in some part to a solid safety tandem and an increased degree of reliability on the outside. This is the case even as sophomore Eddie Jackson works his way back from an offseason knee injury; when back in the fold and back at full strength, Jackson is going to give Alabama another option to defend the SEC's continued lean toward spread-based offensive attacks.

There's no doubt along the back end: Landon Collins (70 tackles, 2 interceptions) will handle strong safety, doing so at an All-American level, while the combination of senior Nick Perry and junior Geno Smith inspires a degree of confidence at free safety – I think Smith's the future starter, though Perry's experience is invaluable. Smith should also see time as the Tide's fifth defensive back, though senior Jarrick Williams' production at nickel back last fall makes him hard to unseat. Another hybrid to watch is sophomore Maurice Smith, who has stood out enough during fall camp to earn some sort of role in the Tide's bonus-back secondary alignments. I'm going to make this case: Alabama has lost two stars at safety – Clinton-Dix and Sunseri – but seems in better shape at safety, if largely due to an uptick in reliable options.

Cornerback play is clearly improved. That's partially due to last fall's woes: Jackson, if healthy, and projected starters Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones will be better off for a rocky and rowdy season, with last year's missteps yielding a far more consistent and cohesive unit in 2014. Maurice Smith's flexibility also comes into play on the outside; if not in a starting role, the sophomore looks very much like a wildcard for the entire secondary. Then there's the addition of two touted freshmen, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, and the thought is that both will push the incumbent starters throughout the course of the season and eventually develop into dual stoppers on either side of the field. By all accounts, they're ready to contribute from day one.

The biggest key for the front seven will be finding a new leader: C.J. Mosley was this guy a season ago, matching his pitch-perfect production – he was ridiculous, if you've forgotten – with steady captainship of the entire defense from his spot on the second level. In more ways than one, Alabama plans to replace Mosley with senior Trey DePriest (65 tackles, 7.5 for loss), who has dabbled at both interior spots but will spend his final season filling Mosley's role in the middle. Personally, I think DePriest is ready physically and mentally; as such, he's one of my preseason All-Americans. Junior Reggie Ragland successfully fended off sophomore Rueben Foster to claim the top spot on the weak side, though Foster needs to be worked into the mix – perhaps in certain packages that best utilize his overall athleticism. While they seem interchangeable, junior Denzel Devall (30 tackles, 5.0 for loss) will serve on the strong side, spelled by fellow junior Dillon Lee, while senior Xzavier Dickson takes on the hybrid end-linebacker role. I think both Devall and Dickson can fill that role.

I get the impression Alabama will spend more time in a four-man front than ever before, due in large part to the staff's need to trot out extra defensive backs to run with teams inside conference play. The Tide's ability to flex into a four-lineman front is made possible by a wealth of riches, which is typical. No player is more impressive than A'Shawn Robinson (38 tackles, 5.5 sacks), a star-on-the-rise sophomore who, after slowly working his way back from a knee injury, gives Alabama all-conference production at end – where he'll be in the 3-4 – and on the outside, where he'll shift during an even-front look. Robinson's the only constant up front, and I mean that in the most positive way possible: Alabama can play senior Brandon Ivory, junior Darren Lake, freshman Josh Frazier and Robinson on the nose; can play Robinson or junior Jarran Reed outside when it wants to get bigger against the run; can play Robinson and sophomore Jonathan Allen when it wants some burst; and can play as many as 10 linemen altogether, from end to end, and effectively keep players fresh as opponents try to wear the Tide down through no-huddle and up-tempo speed.

Special teams: Last year's special teams was the nation's best for every game but one, Auburn, and let's remember that fact as we look toward the opener. There'll be changes: Alabama will change at kicker, replacing Cade Foster with Adam Griffiths, and will change at punter, with JK Scott replacing Cody Mandell. This might have a slight impact on Alabama's ability to dictate field position, to be honest. But the return game, spearheaded by Christion Jones, remains one of the very best, and the coverage teams – despite the Iron Bowl – are as reliable as you'll find.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Quarterback: Some jokester listed Jacob Coker as an under-the-radar Heisman contender back in June, when the general consensus was that the former Florida State transfer would enter the opener as Alabama's clear-cut replacement for AJ McCarron. Not so fast: Coker's in the mix, as expected, but he's done nothing this month to grab the job ahead of junior Blake Sims, the Tide's backup during the last two seasons. So we're back in some familiar territory, with the preseason favorite instead entering the opener entrenched in a position battle that will be decided by on-field results – much like McCarron's duel with Phillip Sims way back in 2011, if you can recall.

To this point, all Coker has is name recognition. He was the Seminoles' backup to Jameis Winston a year ago, having lost that competition, and transferred to Alabama amid the fanfare typically expressed for five-star recruits – which Coker was, in a sense. Yet the depth chart for the opener against West Virginia lists Coker not as the clear starter but the co-starter, sharing the title with Sims, which means one of seven things: one, Coker's been slow to grasp the offense; two, Coker's not quite the can't-miss quarterback some have suggested; three, Sims is far better than advertised; four, Sims' relationships inside the locker room can't be ignored; five, Sims is simply a stronger option, period; six, Alabama may be leaning toward a two-quarterback offense; or seven, Alabama lacks faith in either option. It's not the latter, believe me. It may take a week, but I think the Tide will solve this quarterback competition.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Auburn: If both teams are undefeated heading into the finale – and it's a possibility, obviously – we're all going to need to take a few days off to get our minds right in advance of kickoff.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Again, I buy in no way, shape or form into the idea that Alabama's flaws have been put on full display; there's a theory floating around that last year's Iron Bowl – and Sugar Bowl – marks the decline of an empire, as if Alabama hasn't been shoved before and bounced back with dynastic near-perfection. What did last season prove? That the tides are changing inside and out of the SEC, that there are challengers, that the road won't be easy and that Alabama can't bring anything less than optimal effort – physically and mentally – to roll toward a national championship. These are valuable lessons: Alabama might very well be recharged by the punch in the stomach, much like the bitter, close-but-no-cigar taste of 2008 vaulted the program into a run rarely matched in the history of this sport.

The Tide's biggest question mark lies at quarterback, but we have to trust in Kiffin and Saban eventually making the right decision before hosting Florida on Sept. 20. Based on history – and Kiffin, for all his faults, remains a great developer of offensive skill talent – it's safe to assume this staff will make the right choice. Elsewhere, either Coker or Sims will be surrounded by one of the nation's best backfields, one of the nation's top receiver corps and another standout offensive front, even if the staff must settle some brewing competitions at left tackle and right guard. A word on Kiffin, somewhat mentioned a moment ago: He's been derided, maligned, questioned and criticized, but as an offensive coordinator … well, he's a good one.

The defense is improved. I know there's a leadership void at linebacker, but I think DePriest is poised to fill Mosley's shoes on the field and off the field, before, during and after the snap – I think he'll have a terrific season. The secondary stands out for its offseason improvement, both in terms of added experience and depth, but don't sleep on a quality front: Alabama is deep and talented, with a potential All-American in Robinson and four or five linemen poised to play the equivalent of starter's snaps. In summation, the Tide has balance – offense and defense, run and pass, special teams, coaching.

If the quarterback situation resolves itself, I think Alabama has the best chance of any team in the FBS at beating a Florida State to win the national championship. This is nothing new: Alabama will be a prime title contender – recent suggestions to be damned – for as long as Saban and friends reside in Tuscaloosa. This season will be no different. I'm pegging Alabama to win the SEC West Division, win the SEC at large and reach the College Football Playoff, with the potential for an Alabama-Florida State matchup – student versus the master – raising the hairs on my arm.

Dream season: Alabama wins the national championship.

Nightmare season: The Tide is undefeated before losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 1? The only team left.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM 64-1

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