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And now the hard part...

Nick Saban: "This team has great a opportunity in the last one-third of the season."
Nick Saban: "This team has great a opportunity in the last one-third of the season."

The bye week issue notwithstanding, the Football Gods have been relatively kind regarding scheduling this season. Eight games into the 2010 schedule and Alabama has not faced a single team currently ranked in the top fifteen of either major poll, and has faced only two teams currently ranked in the top twenty.

Penn State and Florida looked like daunting opponents at the time, but they have since combined for six losses on the year and both teams look to be their school's worst squads in several years. Tennessee fielded the single worst Volunteer team of my lifetime, Ole Miss has been a train wreck from the opening gun, Duke is currently sitting at 2-6 and dead last in the ACC, and San Jose State is 1-8 and dead last in the WAC. The two most difficult teams on the schedule in the first eight weeks are clearly a pair of 6-2 teams with Arkansas and South Carolina. For a team competing in the modern day SEC, it's hard to realistically imagine a much easier couple of months to start the season.

All that is about to change.

The remainder of the 2010 regular season schedule looks likely to finish as follows: a road game against a top ten LSU team coming off of a bye week, a home game against a top twenty Mississippi State team coming off of a bye week, and a home game against a #1 Auburn team coming off a bye week with the soon-to-be-crowned Heisman Trophy winner.  And if we can beat all three of those teams, we'll face either a top twenty South Carolina team in Atlanta or a top twenty Florida team in Atlanta. If we win there, we likely face a 12-0 and unanimous #1 Oregon team in Glendale.

The good news for 'Bama is that the bye week went as well as theoretically possible. On our end, no one got injured, arrested, or suspended, and we were able to relax in the comfort of our own homes while the rest of the college landscape burned. Strength of schedule is an issue for us right now, but if we run the table from here on out that will easily take care of itself. We once again control our own destiny regarding the national championship, and the loss at South Carolina has been rendered completely and totally meaningless. It's simple, run the regular season table and you get to Atlanta, you win in Atlanta you get to Glendale, you win in Glendale you are national champions. Nothing else that happened in the first eight weeks of the season matters at this point.

That bad news is, obviously, that the road ahead has never been tougher and there is absolutely no margin for error within our own division, much less the national championship race. Auburn looks to come into Tuscaloosa with an 11-0 record, and thus if we slip up to either LSU or Mississippi State then we can still beat Auburn like a drum in the Iron Bowl and still have no chance of getting to Atlanta. We can win a national championship, but on the other hand a single loss in the final five weeks of the season likely sends us to Orlando in January, or worse.

Now, can we play well enough to get to run the table? I really don't know, and I'm not going to make any predictions about it for the time being. All I will say is that, given how difficult the task will be, we will have to play significantly better over the course of the final six games of the season to make it happen. Compared to how we played in the first two months of the season, there will be have to be a night and day difference regarding the performance of this team down the stretch. If we perform at a level over the final four regular season games like we did in the first eight, you may as well start making plans to watch Auburn in the first week of December. That's not saying we cannot get the job done, that is just being realistic about what it will take to get there.

The off week clearly came at a good time for us, and the hope is that several of the injuries have had sufficient time to heal. The raw talent is there, and with some outside help the path to a national championship has returned.  Having said that, we've written ad nauseam for months now on the flaws and concerns of this team here at RBR, and anyone who has even remotely been paying attention knows well the areas for improvement. There is no real use in speculating further at this stage.  It is what it is now. As we've said for the past several weeks, for better or for worse, we'll find out what we are made of in Baton Rouge.