Schedule analysis: Alabama

Revenge is the name of the game for Alabama in 2014, and the Crimson Tide has a schedule that should allow for it to jump right back into the championship hunt after a disappointing end to last season.

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: West Virginia (4-8)

Sept. 6: Florida Atlantic (6-6)

Sept. 13: Southern Miss (1-11)

Nov. 22: Western Carolina (2-10)

SEC home games

Sept. 20: Florida

Oct. 18: Texas A&M

Nov. 15: Mississippi State

Nov. 29: Auburn

SEC road games

Oct. 10: Ole Miss

Oct. 11: Arkansas

Oct. 25: Tennessee

Nov. 8: LSU

Gut-check time: Before Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn, there will be Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze’s Rebels might not be the best team on Alabama’s schedule this coming season, but it will be the first real challenge the Crimson Tide faces. The season-opener against West Virginia shouldn’t be much of a struggle. Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss in back-to-back weeks should be a breeze. And even if Florida is on the rebound, chances are the Gators will be heavy underdogs in Tuscaloosa. That leaves Ole Miss which serves as Alabama’s first real road test of the season. The fact that the Rebels run an up-tempo offense that features a veteran quarterback and playmakers at receiver makes the matchup all the more intriguing.

Trap game: We’ll find out on Nov. 15 if Alabama learned its lesson. Before the Tide lost in the last second to Auburn and fell flat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, it nearly slipped up against Mississippi State in Starkville. The offense was flat, the defense uninspired and the mood as a whole was lacking. Looking back it was a telltale sign of Alabama’s demise. This year the Bulldogs could represent a similar pothole, albeit one wrought with deeper consequences as coach Dan Mullen’s squad should be improved on both sides of the football. After traveling to Baton Rouge, La., the week before to take on LSU, will Alabama be up for another fight? Will it be ready to handle Dak Prescott and the Mississippi State offense? Or, with the Iron Bowl on the horizon, will it fall asleep at the wheel and overlook a team that’s capable of pulling off the upset in Bryant-Denny Stadium?

Snoozers: To be fair, West Virginia looked like a great nonconference game a few years ago. Then the Mountaineers dropped to 4-8 under coach Dana Holgorsen. Now Alabama’s nonconference schedule looks like a series of snoozers as no team finished last season above .500. Southern Miss’ one win last year -- yes, one -- came against UAB. Western Carolina beat only Mars Hill and Elon -- the Lions and the Phoenix, if you’re playing the “Name that mascot” game. Florida Atlantic, which finished a cool 6-6, fired its head coach, so don’t expect too much out of the Owls either.

Telltale stretch: The first half of the season should be a breeze for Alabama. The second half, on the other hand, will not. Texas A&M will come to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 18, and we all know what happened the last time the Aggies came to town. Granted Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans won’t be around, but receivers like Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are ones to watch. Then there are road trips to Tennessee and LSU. The Vols will be having a hard time of it since no starter returns on either the offensive or defensive line, but the Bayou Bengals are perennially Alabama’s biggest challenge. Throw in home games against a dangerous Mississippi State team and an Auburn squad looking to prove last year was no fluke, and you’re looking at a stretch of games in which the Tide will be forced to dig deep to survive.

Final analysis: Lopsided might be the best word to describe Alabama’s schedule. Back-loaded might be another. But for coach Nick Saban, he should be thankful. His players will have the benefit of a soft first half of the season to learn. Quarterback Jacob Coker, should he win the job, won’t be thrown directly into the fire. The secondary, with three new starters, will get a taste of competition against West Virginia, but nothing life-threatening. By the time Alabama reaches Texas A&M, it should have worked out the kinks. From there it gets interesting. But still, the schedule is favorable. Arkansas comes before Texas A&M, LSU is preceded by a bye week and Mississippi State and Auburn both travel to Tuscaloosa. Oh, and a lot of teams in the West would be quite happy to have Tennessee as its crossover rival. None of this is to say Alabama has it easy. It doesn’t. It just has it easier than a lot of other SEC programs.