Schedule analysis: Alabama

With spring practice behind us for all 12 SEC teams, it’s time to start breaking down the schedules for next fall and assess who has the toughest paths and who has the easiest paths to a successful 2011 season.

We’ll start with Alabama:

Nonconference opponents (with 2010 records)

Sept 3: Kent State (5-7)

Sept 10: at Penn State (7-6)

Sept. 17: North Texas (3-9)

Nov. 19: Georgia Southern (10-5)

SEC home games

Sept. 24: Arkansas

Oct. 8: Vanderbilt

Oct. 22: Tennessee

Nov. 5: LSU

SEC road games

Oct. 1: at Florida

Oct. 15: at Ole Miss

Nov. 12: at Mississippi State

Nov. 26: at Auburn

Gut-check time: When’s the last time the Alabama-LSU game hasn’t been an instant classic? The last four games have been decided in the final few possessions. Since Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, he’s won two and lost two against his old club. The game this season will be in Tuscaloosa and could easily be an elimination contest in the national championship race.

Trap game: That trip to Mississippi State the week after the LSU game has danger written all over it. This figures to be Dan Mullen’s best team yet in Starkville, and win or lose against LSU, Alabama will be hard-pressed to match that same intensity level for a second straight week.

Snoozer: The Crimson Tide will get a glorified scrimmage against North Texas the third week of the season before opening SEC play the next week against Arkansas.

Telltale stretch: There aren’t any killer three-game stretches, but facing Arkansas at home on Sept. 24 and then traveling to Florida the next week on Oct. 1 won’t be any picnic.

Final analysis: The trip to Penn State the second week of the season will tell us a lot about who steps in at quarterback for Alabama, and it could be that AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims are still battling it out at that point. Still, the schedule is much easier than it was a year ago. A home date with Vanderbilt replaces a road game at South Carolina, and Alabama gets both Arkansas and LSU at Bryant-Denny Stadium this season. Moreover, Alabama doesn't play back-to-back road games all season. The bye week leading into the LSU game is helpful, especially since LSU also has one. Last season, six of Alabama’s eight SEC opponents had byes the week before they faced the Crimson Tide. Next season, only three of the Tide’s opponents will be coming off byes, although Alabama is still the only team in the league that will face more than two teams coming off byes the previous week. LSU, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt will all get an extra week to prepare for Alabama in 2011.