What is Alabama's biggest game for 2016 and why?
Well, if I was following the prescription of Our Dark Lord, I’d have to say that the biggest game of the 2016 season is the next game…in this case, the first game against USC. If you lose that one, the road gets exponentially more difficult to navigate.
However, a loss to USC is probably not in the cards. The Trojans are definitely in rebuilding stage, and given Saban’s record in season openers, the odds for Troy are pretty steep.
In the grand scheme of things, the biggest game for Alabama this season is the game in Oxford against Ole Miss. It’s not that the Rebel Black Bear Akbars are the best team on the Tide’s schedule…not at all. Sure, they return the (Chad) Kelly kid, but they won’t have Laquon Treadwell bailing his ass out on a regular basis. Yeah, Evan Engram is back at tight end, and he’s a’ight. The rest of Kelly’s target are rather unproven. Not that they had much of a run game last year, but this season the Rebs are fielding a relative unknown in Akeem "Naomi" Judd at tailback, which doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the hearts of opponents. On their rebuilt offensive line, the Fightin’ Faulknerians will also likely be depending on senior right tackle Robert Conyers, three sophomores and a true freshman at left tackle…so there’s that.
Defensively, the Akbars are fairly gutted. Nkemdiches are gone. Half the secondary is outie following the end of last season. Husky head-knocker Tony Conner is back at safety, but he can’t hold it down all on his lonesome. Questionable depth at linebacker, in the secondary and across the defensive front.
"Then why, OWB, why would this game against the perennial also-rans be of the utmost importance to the mighty Crimson Tide?" I will tell you why. Because Bama lost to those khaki-wearin’, mimosa-sippin’, literarians in each of the past two seasons, even though they shouldn’t have. Granted, the Rebels needed acts of Gawd in order to defeat Bama in both seasons, and in neither year were they truly the "better team." But those L’s were L’s nonetheless, and losses to that bunch are some of the most unsavory.
Traditionally, Ole Miss has served as an early season speedbump for the Tide, with an upset once a decade due to the emergence of some Manning or other under center. The recent pair of losses has been not only a statistical anomaly, but it’s been an extremely difficult one to swallow. Alabama is a team that thrives off of intimidation and being the toughest team on the field, and Nick Saban simply doesn’t lose to the same team twice in a row in most circumstances. This kind of thing simply can’t be tolerated any longer.
While the defense will be stellar for the Tide, there is once again an unsettling situation in the backfield, particularly at quarterback. Unless things change dramatically in August, there will once again be a quarterback competition heading into the season. Remember back to last season, as the Tide still didn’t have a defined starter at QB heading into the Ole Miss game. That lack of leadership under center definitely contributed to the loss, and it could do so again this season if the quarterback race stretches into the third week. Factor in an unproven tandem of first-time starters at tailback, and an offensive line that could be missing its best player in Cam Robinson (depending on the results of his criminal case), and there could be a recipe for the type of turnover-prone offensive performance that doomed the Tide in the last two years.
The game is about more than just bragging rights and reckoning for the Tide: the Tide’s performance in this game could serve as a governor for what they can accomplish in 2016. Alabama can’t take an early loss to Ole Miss again, with a tough gamut of SEC road games through October and November. A third win by the Rebels in as many years could shatter the aura of invincibility the Tide has worked so hard to rebuild after the 2013-2014 seasons. If Alabama can get the Ole Miss monkey, err, Black Bear, off of its back in the third game, then things could fall quite fortuitously for the Tide in regard to a return to the College Football Playoffs. Despite their previously-perennial whipping boy status, beating the Rebel Black Bear Akbars is of the utmost importance for the Tide this year (and I think I just threw up in my mouth a little for saying that.)
It has to be Ole Miss, just because of the losses in the past two seasons. This team is too proud and too talented to accept a three game losing streak to any team, but particularly a traditional doormat such as the Rebs. It won't be easy on the road, but I look for the team to come out ready to get that taste out of the mouth.
If you asked Nick Saban this question, then of course his answer would be "the next one." While that is the Process talking, one game stands out above the others IMHO. Alabama's toughest 2016 games all occur away from the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Southern Cal game is a big one but I think the Crimson Tide can handle the troubled Trojans. The Ole Miss game is dangerous but there is no way an eroded Rebs team beats Alabama three times in a row. Saban is a perfect 9-0 against Tennessee in his tenure in Tuscaloosa. The Vols are an improved team and as much as it would hurt to lose to them, the Tide can recover from a loss in the form of winning out and getting a rematch with UT in Atlanta in December. That leaves my choice of LSU. This game has turned into an annual "Game of the Century". This year should be no different and the winner of that game likely represents the SEC West in the SEC Championship Game.