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January 8, 2013

HURT: Alabama three-peat bid will have challengers

As fearsome as the University of Alabama football team was Monday night, the rest of college football isn't going to give up. Perhaps it should, but it won't. Even as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was talking about "knowing now where the bar was set," a hundred other head coaches were calculating how far they are from the top, and what it will take to get there. For many of those programs, the distance is just too great. But no matter how tough the champ is, there is never a lack of serious contenders, and 2013 will be no different.

Alabama will be good, built more around AJ McCarron and a stellar receiving corps but still able to run the football offensively and stop teams on defense. It will, barring some unforeseen offseason event, start the season at No. 1 in the polls. But here are 10 teams - five from within the Southeastern Conference and five from the rest of the country - to consider as possible claimants to the throne.

Frustrating for most of America, weary to its very bones of SEC dominance, the likeliest barrier to a Crimson Tide three-peat will be the SEC itself. The real best-case scenario for the rest of the country is an SEC with both power and parity at the top, so much so that the league knocks itself out of BCS contention. Before you say "that couldn't happen," remember that there was only one result - Baylor's win against Kansas State - that stopped the BCS matchup from being Notre Dame against Kansas State. The Fighting Irish would probably be BCS champions today had that happened, although they would be no closer to being the actual best team in college football. Their fairly apparent weaknesses would have gone unexposed.

Could it happen next year? Sure it could. In addition to Alabama, the rest of this year's six SEC power teams all feel good about next year. (LSU, following a mass early exodus to the pros and a hostile schedule, might be the only exception.) Texas A&M hosts Alabama in September, an early game that will be notable for BCS ramifications, Johnny Football, sweltering heat and, probably, a record-setting number of screen shots of quarterbacks' girlfriends. South Carolina and Georgia will be a similar early showdown in the East, with both teams liking their chances. Whoever emerges from the 2013 SEC race will be the BCS favorite, but that assumes that the league doesn't cannibalize itself.

Outside the SEC, familiar names will be vying for another shot. Take these five. Oregon and Stanford should battle for Pac-12 supremacy (USC will fade further due to sanctions) and would present the stylistic challenge to the SEC that America longs to see. Ohio State went undefeated this year and returns Braxton Miller and possibly even Urban Meyer, although instant retirement is never out of the picture for him. Louisville has a great quarterback returning in Teddy Bridgewater, a lot of talent around him and (if the Big East ever settles on its membership), a real chance to go unbeaten (strength of schedule would require a lot of help for the Cardinals). In the Big 12, someone will emerge - possibly even Texas, as shaky as the Longhorns were in 2012. If Clemson wins an intriguing opener against Georgia, throw Dabo Swinney's Tigers in the mix as well.

The toughest opponent for Alabama will remain Alabama, of course, and its capacity to fight pressure and complacency. But plenty of teams would be glad to take their shot, even after assessing the damage inflicted upon Notre Dame.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.



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