TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Les Miles is right. So is Steve Spurrier, Butch Jones and every other SEC coach who looks at his schedule and wonders why it's not as easy as the one the defending champions will play.
Nick Saban knows Alabama caught a break. He might not say it directly, but when he told reporters at SEC Media Days that "there can never be an equal path to the championship," he was acknowledging that his team won't face the stiffest of competition this season, and in his mind that's OK. He coached at LSU. He knows what facing Florida every year is like.
It might not be fair, but it is what it is. The Tide avoid the big three in the SEC East -- Florida, Georgia and South Carolina -- while facing nonconference cupcakes such as Georgia State and Chattanooga. The bye weeks set up perfectly, and if you throw in the fact that Ole Miss has to come back to Tuscaloosa for a second consecutive season, its easy to see why some are pointing fingers.
But don't blame Saban, and don't blame his players. And while you're at it, give Alabama a little bit of credit. While you might not like its schedule top to bottom, the beginning is nothing to sneeze at. If Alabama is going to win a third consecutive national championship, it has no time to waste as three of its most important games come in the first five weeks of the season.
"Obviously we start out with a very difficult opening schedule," Saban said. "Virginia Tech has been a 10‑win team almost every year. ... And then to go play the team that beat us last year, Texas A&M, on the road in the second game of the season, obviously is going to be very challenging.
"That's what we're sort of focusing on, what we're looking forward to."
Anthony Steen is on the same page. Alabama's veteran right guard was asked what he thought of the busy start to the season, and all he could say was, "I know we play Virginia Tech; I know it's not going to be one of those easy games." As part of an offensive line replacing three starters, he ought to be circling the Hokies defense and its 35 sacks from a season ago.
While everyone might be focusing on the next game on the schedule, the season opener won't be a walk in the park as the Hokies undoubtedly will be a measuring stick for just how prepared Alabama is to stop a mobile quarterback in an uptempo style of offense. Logan Thomas, a 6-foot-6 senior with NFL potential, has run for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 6,000 in his career under coach Frank Beamer. Despite a disappointing 2012, he finished in the top 40 nationally in total offense with 3,500 yards and 27 touchdowns.
But to be fair, the second game on Alabama's schedule is easily the biggest of the season. Texas A&M was the only team to beat the Tide a year ago, and it's safe to say revenge will be on the mind of players this time around. A camera recently captured an image of the loss playing on TVs in Alabama's weight room, and though players are saying all the right things, there's no underplaying the magnitude of the matchup.
AJ McCarron gave the best coach-speak a few weeks ago, saying, "Me, personally, I take every week the same way."
"Just a normal week, nothing greater," he added. "It's going to be fun playing in College Station, and I'm looking forward to it."
Steen tried his best to keep the focus on the Hokies, but even he couldn't downplay the matchup.
"We want to beat them by 50," he said. "Obviously we see it on TV every day that they beat us. Like I said, Virginia Tech comes first. Once that switch comes on for A&M, I promise you we're going to be pumped."
Johnny Manziel had his Heisman Trophy moment against the Tide in 2012, leading his team to a thrilling, 29-24 victory. He exposed the defense early with his feet and finished them off late with his arm. And throughout the offseason, players and coaches have been asked how they'll stop him a second time around.
The bye week that comes before the game might be viewed as a positive in that respect, but not necessarily to players. Steen said he'd rather not have the break and that the time off will only make him more nervous. C.J. Mosley, Alabama's leader at inside linebacker, was more even-keeled in his assessment, saying they'll take the extra week to prepare, even though it's not ideal.
"It kind of slows things down," Mosley said. "When the season starts, you just want to keep it going."
Leaving College Station might provide a bit of a breather, but not for long, as Alabama returns home to host an up-and-coming Ole Miss squad two weeks later. Outside of LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, the Rebels gave the Tide their toughest game last season. The defense held McCarron and company to a season-low 305 yards, while the offense proved dangerous at times, pushing the pace and creating confusion as they went no-huddle. With Bo Wallace, Jeff Scott and Donte Moncrief all a year more familiar with the scheme, Hugh Freeze could increase the tempo even further this time around.
Keeping up won't be easy, especially after going through the wringer against Virginia Tech and Texas A&M in previous weeks. The decidedly weak schedule that follows against rebuilding programs such as Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee will be key in regrouping for late games against LSU and Mississippi State.
Even though Alabama might not have the top-to-bottom schedule of its somewhat perturbed SEC brethren, its road to the championship nonetheless presents its own set of challenges. A fast start to the season means a fast start to fall camp and a sense of urgency. As Mosley explained, a team finds its identity in the beginning of the season, "so we have to make sure we're doing a great job during fall camp to have that step ahead."