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Alabama is worthy of No. 1 but faces uncertainty in 2017

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Who's the biggest threat to Alabama this season? (0:46)

Paul Finebaum breaks down the biggest challenges on the Crimson Tide's schedule, including a first-week matchup against Florida State. (0:46)

HOOVER, Ala. -- The voting won't be revealed until later this week, but it will take an App State-Michigan type of upset for Alabama to not be named the favorite to win the SEC this season.

The media can be easily distracted, but we aren't blind to facts. Not only is Nick Saban still the head football coach in Tuscaloosa, but he also returns his starting quarterback and reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, a group of talented running backs and one of the best receivers in college football.

Couple that with an LSU team in transition, Auburn pinning its hopes on an unproven quarterback and Ole Miss being in the midst of an NCAA investigation, and the path through the SEC West is relatively calm. The East, while marginally improved from last season, doesn't have a single team to be afraid of.

"Every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of his former employer, Alabama.

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said: "There's nobody out there doing it better."

But that doesn't mean Alabama is free of drama. There are a number of questions facing this year's team, and they're magnified by championship-or-bust expectations and the pressure of trying to sustain a dynasty that has experienced nary a hiccup during its nearly decade-long run.

Take Jalen Hurts, for instance. He was spectacular as a true freshman, winning the starting job by the time the season opener against USC was over. He accounted for 36 total touchdowns (23 passing, 13 rushing), had single-digit interceptions (nine) and became the first rookie to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker rumbled between the hedges at Georgia.

But Hurts' 14 wins last season were somewhat overshadowed by his lone loss. Late in the season, which culminated in a College Football Playoff National Championship loss to Clemson, he came back to earth, struggling to throw from the pocket. Alabama didn't win the title and Hurts became a scapegoat (never mind that the defense gave up 35 points to Clemson). By spring, the buzz inexplicably shifted from Hurts to true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

No matter the quarterback drama, nothing compares to the botched handoff from Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Kiffin accepted the job to become head coach at Florida Atlantic but stayed on as Alabama's O.C. for the playoff -- only to miss a team bus (again), appear distracted and put together a mediocre performance in the semifinal win over Washington (6-of-17 on third down and just two offensive touchdowns).

Kiffin made it back to campus and was quickly relieved of his duties before Sarkisian was promoted, lost to Clemson and exited stage left when the opportunity to join the Atlanta Falcons' staff came up. Then, searching for a third offensive coordinator in a month, Saban came up with a name no one expected (and few had heard of): Brian Daboll.

Daboll, while a minor player on the SEC landscape, is maybe the most unknown commodity in the conference. He was a failed offensive coordinator in the NFL, spent the past few seasons as a tight ends coach for the New England Patriots and hasn't coached in college since he was a 24-year-old graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State.

Will Alabama continue to go spread and up-tempo under Daboll? Maybe. Will it return to its pro-style roots? Who knows?

Daboll's history gives some clues, but Saban isn't giving a clear answer, railing against a reporter's question about the potential for a more "ball control" type of offense.

"Do you do what everybody else in the media does and just create some s--- and throw it on the wall and see what sticks?" Saban said in the spring. "Which is what I see happening everywhere."

Saban could provide further insight Wednesday at media days, but don't hold your breath. Tipping his hand won't help him beat a potential top-five team, Florida State, on Sept. 2, so he'll likely keep his plans a secret in case Jimbo Fisher and his coaching staff are listening.

Against the Seminoles, Saban will also be breaking in a retooled defense. Alabama, which is no stranger to players leaving for the NFL, was hit hard this year, with seven total draft picks from the defensive side of the ball. Last year's consensus SEC Defensive Player of the Year (Jonathan Allen) is now gone, along with the Butkus Award winner (Reuben Foster), one of the most productive pass-rushing tandems in recent memory (Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson), a two-year starter at cornerback (Marlon Humphrey) and a longtime playmaker at safety (Eddie Jackson).

No one is weeping for the Tide, of course. Even if the defense doesn't live up to 2015 and '16 standards, it could still be the best in the conference.

"Alabama has cookie cutters for the NFL, and they are always talented, genetically freaky," Arkansas center Frank Ragnow said.

Talent isn't always the difference, though. Saban believed that his 2010 team was good enough to win it all, and instead it coughed up a big halftime lead to Auburn, lost its third game of the season and wound up in the Citrus Bowl.

In addition to personnel changes, what will be worth watching closely is the mentality of this year's team after a tough, last-second loss to Clemson to end last season. That could provide just the right kind of motivation, but if things go south against Florida State and back-to-back losses become a real possibility, then all bets are off.