This story is part of USA TODAY Sports’ 25 days to college football countdown.
Alabama must replace a star quarterback (Mac Jones), the Heisman Trophy winner (wide receiver DeVonta Smith) and the nation’s best running back (Najee Harris), along with the normal level of attrition from the nation’s most talented roster, yet still finds itself at No. 1 in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.
There is no greater respect paid to the program than this: Alabama can lose anyone — maybe even everyone — yet still be viewed by more people than not as the favorite to win the national championship.
The Crimson Tide are unrivaled even in the strongest conference in college football. Alabama has lost just five games in Southeastern Conference play since 2014, two against rival Auburn, with four of those losses coming by six or fewer points. In comparison, only five of the Tide’s 51 SEC wins since the start of the 2014 season have been by the same margin.
Just as the SEC has separated itself from the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Tide have distanced themselves from the rest of the SEC. Once again, they top the preseason power rankings heading into September.
1. Alabama (2020 record: 13-0)
With so much talent and such a rock-solid system in place, the biggest source of intrigue comes in the form of new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and, to a lesser extent, new offensive line coach Doug Marrone. The former NFL head coaches are Nick Saban’s latest reclamation projects and a potential source of new tricks for an already unstoppable offense.
Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III and defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis celebrate the Crimson Tide’s win over the Florida Gators in the 2020 SEC championship game.
2. Georgia (8-2)
JT Daniels tossed 10 touchdowns in just 119 attempts last season, a touchdown rate more than 50% better than Jake Fromm’s average in 2019. The feeling of control Daniels give this offense makes Georgia the biggest threat to Alabama and one of the top teams in the entire country.
3. Texas A&M (9-1)
The Aggies have two talented options for quarterback Kellen Mond’s successor. One is freshman Haynes King, who saw action in two games in his debut season. The other, redshirt freshman Zach Calzada, has slightly more game experience and a big arm but might not match King’s impact on the running game. While this youth stands in contrast to Mond’s four years of experience, Jimbo Fisher has two impressive contenders and the potential to locate another multiple-year starter for his offense.
25 DAYS TO COLLEGE FOOTBALL COUNTDOWN
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Power rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten
4. LSU (5-5)
The Tigers will try to turn back the clock all the way to 2019 under new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz, who spent last season with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers under former LSU assistant Joe Brady. Max Johnson is the no-doubt starter at quarterback with Myles Brennan out with an arm injury, but keep tabs on freshman Garrett Nussmeier, who has an extremely bright future.
5. Florida (8-4)
It’s only natural to expect a noticeable dip in production from the passing game as Emory Jones takes over for Kyle Trask, who went for 43 touchdowns on 9.8 yards per throw in his final season. But Jones will bring a new dimension to the Gators’ offense as a runner after going for 473 yards on 6.4 yards per carry in the past two seasons.
6. Mississippi (5-5)
The Rebels are going to put up crooked numbers on offense but can’t be taken too seriously as a New Year’s Six bowl contender until the defense climbs out of the bottom of the SEC in most major categories. But the offense is going to be a blast: Lane Kiffin has pushed all the right buttons on this side of the ball since coming aboard following the 2019 season.
7. Kentucky (5-6)
Outside of a brutal three-game stretch against Florida, LSU and Georgia, the Wildcats’ schedule is friendly enough to pull out seven or more wins in the regular season. With left tackle Darian Kinnard one of the nation’s best, there’s still reason to like what Kentucky brings to the table on the offensive line despite losing a pair of all-conference picks in Landon Young and Drake Jackson.
8. Missouri (5-5)
The arrow is clearly pointing up for Missouri, which since hiring second-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz has pulled away from Tennessee and South Carolina to join the top half of the East division. Even if a push for the Top 25 is a year away, the Tigers have what it takes to finish third in the division and win eight games during the regular season.
9. Auburn (6-5)
Getting to six wins should be enough to make coach Bryan Harsin’s debut an acceptable one, especially given how Auburn’s normal West division slate — including road games against LSU and Texas A&M — is augmented by matchups against Georgia and Penn State. Harsin’s track record of quarterback development takes on its most important challenge in third-year starter Bo Nix.
10. Mississippi State (4-7)
If the defense remains effective against the run and at forcing turnovers, a second-year bump from Mike Leach’s offense could help the Bulldogs double last season’s win total. His previous stops at Texas Tech and Washington State suggest improvement is on the way. The Red Raiders went from scoring 25.4 points per game in Leach’s first year (2000) to 33.5 in his second, while Washington State went from 20.4 points per game in 2012 to 31 points per game a year later.
11. Arkansas (3-7)
Second-year coach Sam Pittman is considered one of the top developers of offensive line talent in the country, so look for better play up front from a group with five returning starters and more than 100 combined career starts. More consistency in the run game will take pressure off a defense that hasn’t finished higher than 10th in the SEC in points allowed per game since 2014.
12. Tennessee (3-7)
The Volunteers will be fun to watch, at least, as new hire Josh Heupel brings an exciting offense to a program in dire need of a new identity. There’s even a path to six wins and a bowl bid, though that would demand no missteps against the five easiest opponents on the schedule — Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Carolina, South Alabama and Vanderbilt — along with an upset.
13. South Carolina (2-8)
There are major losses in the secondary but maybe enough of a pass rush to prevent a full-on defensive meltdown under first-year coach Shane Beamer. But he’s got a tough job ahead: South Carolina has won just three of its past 14 SEC games, with two of those wins coming against Vanderbilt.
14. Vanderbilt (0-9)
The 3-18 record overall and 1-16 mark in SEC games in the past two seasons helps illustrate the road ahead for former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. What are fair expectations for 2021? Going 4-8 and winning once in SEC play would be more than adequate given the nature of this rebuilding project.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SEC preseason power rankings: Alabama No. 1, Georgia, Texas A&M follow