Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Without question, the SEC has become the most dominant conference in the nation over the past several seasons, making claim to the seven straight BCS National Championships.
Yet in a league stacked with elite talent, the Alabama Crimson Tide have established themselves as one of the best dynasties in FBS history.
After dismantling Notre Dame in January's national title game (42-14), Alabama was crowned BCS champs for the third time in four years, becoming the first team since Nebraska from 1994-1997 to accomplish that feat, and with another spectacular squad returning to Tuscaloosa for the 2013 campaign, the team is attempting to become the first three-peat national champions since Yale dominated the college football landscape more than a century ago.
As with any great program, the Tide's success starts with their head coach, Nick Saban, who previously rose to prominence with another great SEC program by winning the 2003 BCS National Championship with LSU. After a brief stint in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, Saban returned to the college game in 2007 with Alabama, and after a rough 7-6 season in his first year, he's been bowling over the competition ever since, going 61-7 over the past five seasons while winning it all in 2009, 2011 and 2012, firmly establishing himself as one of the greatest college coaches ever.
As impressive as Saban has been, Alabama also benefits from having a seemingly unlimited supply of top-level talent. Naturally, the squad lost several pieces from last season's top-ranked defense in the most recent NFL Draft, including Dee Milliner, Nico Johnson, Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial. Top rusher Eddie Lacy also departed for the pros, as did most of the stout offensive line (Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones).
Although there will be some shuffling of cogs during the offseason, Alabama has plenty of highly-skilled players in place to be just as good, if not better in 2013. Quarterback A.J. McCarron, who is already the first signal- caller to ever win back-to-back BCS titles, returns for his senior season hoping to build upon an incredibly efficient 2012 campaign (.672 completion percentage, 2,933 yards, 30 TDs, three INTs). With Lacy gone, sophomore T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 12 TDs) will assume the featured tailback role. Amari Cooper was also outstanding as a freshman, catching 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, C.J. Mosley - arguably the team's best player last season with 107 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions - is back to anchor what is sure to be another outstanding unit. Also returning to the fold is pass-rushing specialist Adrian Hubbard (seven sacks, 11 TFL) as well as Trey Depriest (59 tackles), Vinnie Sunseri (54 tackles, two INTs), Deion Belue (6.5 TFL, two INTs), Hasean Clinton-Dix (five INTs) and Ed Stinson (8.5 TFL, three sacks).
Alabama's status as a national championship contender is a sure thing, but the bigger question in the SEC this season is who, if anyone, can knock off the Tide?
Alabama's biggest competition over the past decade has been LSU, and although the Tigers experienced a relatively disappointing 10-3 season a year ago, they are just two seasons removed from a national championship game appearance. With quarterback Zach Mettenberger expected to improve in his junior season, a stable of quality running backs headlined by Jeremy Hill, and a historically strong defense, LSU should be in the thick of things well into December.
Once considered the far-inferior of the two divisions, the SEC East has closed the gap on the West in recent years. Georgia has represented the East in back- to-back SEC championship games, and while it lost several key pieces to an outstanding defense a year ago, the return of Heisman-hopeful Aaron Murray at quarterback, as well as a pair of spectacular sophomore running backs in Todd Gurley (1,385 yards, 17 TDs) and Keith Marshall (759 yards, eight TDs), should make the Bulldogs serious title contenders once again.
Florida ended an otherwise strong season with a disappointing Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville, but it still retains enough talent on defense to remain a factor.
South Carolina (11-2 in 2012) has some questions on offense, but it has perhaps the best player in college football on its side in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who racked up 23.5 TFL, 13 sacks and three forced fumbles as a sophomore a season ago.
Alabama's biggest competition for the SEC crown this season will likely come from one of the league's newest members, as Texas A&M came into Bryant-Denny Stadium last November and handed the Tide their only loss of the season (29-24). The Aggies weren't expected to do much in their first go-round as a member of the SEC, but they surprised many by finishing 11-2 (6-2 SEC) thanks largely to the efforts of their Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. 'Johnny Football' had his way with the vaunted Alabama defense, completing 24- of-31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns while adding 92 yards rushing, and if he can somehow come close to repeating his historic freshman campaign (3,706 passing yards, 1,409 rushing yards, 47 total touchdowns), expect the Aggies to give Alabama a run for its money. Both teams will be put to the test early this season, with a Sept. 14 showdown in College Station in a game every college football fan circled the moment the schedules were announced.
As usual, the SEC will be ripe with talent in 2013, but while plenty of teams are on the doorstep of claiming the conference crown, expect the battle-tested Tide to be the cream of the crop once again.