Despite personnel losses, Alabama plenty dangerous

On the surface, the numbers do not compute.

Remove six NFL draftees from college football's gold standard for defense, as well as the nation's top running back. Take away eight NFL draftees, including four first-round picks, from a team that won last year's BCS national title and plug in several unproven players at key positions.

What do you have?

If you're No. 2 Alabama, you have some high-profile holes to fill on a team that is expected to contend for the school's third national championship in the past four seasons. More important, you stand -- along with No. 3 LSU -- as one of the co-favorites to become the seventh consecutive team from the Southeastern Conference to continue the league's unprecedented reign of dominance in BCS National Championship games.

The justification process for such lofty expectations begins at 7 tonight at Cowboys Stadium, when the Crimson Tide meets No. 8 Michigan in the lone matchup of Top 10 teams in college football's opening weekend.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has been mentally steeling his team for weeks, tossing out public comparisons between the Crimson Tide football program -- which claims 14 national championships -- and the New York Yankees or the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan era.

"You don't win a game by accident," Saban said, noting that all dominant teams and athletes share one common trait.

"You've got to stay on top of the little things. You have to make it happen by what you do every day," said Saban, who praised the off-season efforts of players seeking to replace departed running back Trent Richardson (1,679 yards, 21 TDs) and fill voids on an Alabama defense that gave up the fewest points (8.15 per game), total yards (183.62 average.), rushing yards (72.15 average) and passing yards (111.46 average) of any FBS school last season.

Alabama Math suggests that removing all of those proven pieces from a national title team and replacing them with the next guy on the depth chart, plus the return of quarterback A.J. McCarron, equals another title run. And it might. It is hard to argue against Alabama's track record over the past four seasons under Saban -- a combined 48-6 mark, with two national titles -- or the SEC's dominance in the past six BCS title games.

But in terms of returning difference makers, the deck seems stacked a little higher at top-ranked Southern California or No. 7 Florida State, two teams capable of becoming the first non-SEC school to collect a BCS crystal football since Texas in the 2005 season. Even Saban left an out for his team earlier this week when discussing 2012 expectations.

"Everyone is going to say that if the team does not play well, that it is because they feel entitled," said Saban, who quickly squashed that suggestion. "If this team is not successful, it is not because of the character and attitude of the team. It will be because of the lack of experience the team has in certain positions, and they may make too many mistakes to win."

Will that experience cost the Crimson Tide tonight against Michigan, which features an electrifying senior quarterback (Denard Robinson) who will be operating against several fresh-faced defenders? It could.

But I would not expect it. The Wolverines, an 11-2 team last season, have plenty of unsettled defensive issues of their own, especially in a rebuilt defensive line.

Although tonight is no gimme, the acid tests for Alabama's national title hopes come later this season, in road games against No. 10 Arkansas (Sept. 15) and No. 3 LSU (Nov. 3). Even with a loss to Michigan, the Tide could get back in the national title hunt by winning both of those.

But can you imagine the fallout in SEC country -- yes, Texans, that now includes us -- if the league's top-ranked team in the AP poll were to fall to a Big Ten opponent in a high-profile setting? That hasn't happened since the era of leather helmets. Or so it seems.

What we'll learn tonight from the Crimson Tide is how well this year's leaders, such as McCarron and tight end Michael Williams, have passed along program expectations to those stepping into the starting lineup.

"We always feel like we have a target on our backs," Williams said. "It's not up to us to say who's No. 1 and No. 2. It's up to us to do the work and play the games. And we like our chances if we do those things right."

For the past four years, that typically has been enough to keep Alabama in the national title picture. It has made the Crimson Tide the standard bearer for continued SEC excellence in 2012. Even if pre-season expectations, on the surface, do not always match up with a long list of proven returnees.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch