Alabama's blazing 11-0 start came rather easily, with its only single-digit margin coming in a shootout victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 14 (49-42). The squad played its typical brand of dominating defense along the way with three shutouts, blanking Ole Miss (25-0), Arkansas (52-0) and Chattanooga (49-0), and things were lining up nicely for another bid to the national championship game heading into its Nov. 30 Iron Bowl contest with Auburn.
The Tide fell on the wrong end of a game for the ages, however. With the contest tied at 28 in the waning seconds, Alabama missed a field goal and Auburn's Chris Davis returned it 100 yards for the game-winning score to lead the Tigers to a 34-28 victory. It was one of the most miraculous finishes in college football history, and it put an end to Alabama's dreams of a three- peat.
The squad still earned an at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl but came out flat in a 45-31 loss at the hands of Oklahoma, as it finished with multiple losses for just the fourth time in seven seasons under Nick Saban, the first time since 2010.
OFFENSE: Alabama returns some continuity on the offensive side of the ball with five returning starters, including three along the offensive line, but it will need to overcome the loss of the most prolific quarterback in team history.
The departure of two-time championship winning signal caller A.J. McCarron (.673 completion percentage, 3,063 yards, 28 TDs, seven INTs in 2013) has left a hole under center, but the team is expecting big things out of strong-armed QB Jacob Coker, a transfer from Florida State who spent last season serving as the backup to Jameis Winston. While Coker hasn't officially been anointed the starter, his impressive performance in training camp has given him a leg up on Blake Sims.
While the quarterback position may be in flux, at least Saban knows he can trust his running backs. T.J. Yeldon scored 14 touchdowns last year and has crossed the 1,000-yard plateau in each of his first two seasons. Derrick Henry is expected to carry a larger load in his sophomore season, especially after his outstanding performance in the Sugar Bowl (eight carries, 100 yards, TD, 61-yard TD reception).
Coker will have the good fortune of throwing to one of the SEC's best pass- catchers in Amari Cooper (45 receptions, 736 yards, four TDs). Also returning to the talented receivers corps are Christion Jones (36 receptions, 349 yards, two TDs) and DeAndrew White (32 receptions, 534 yards, four TDs).
The team made a big splash in the offseason, as it brought aboard former USC head coach Lane Kiffin to act as offensive coordinator after Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan.
"The players have responded to him very well," Saban said of Kiffin, who got his coaching start on the prolific USC teams in the early 2000s. "New energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas to do some things offensively that will enhance our chances of being successful."
DEFENSE: The Tide have made a name for themselves in recent years for having one of the best defenses in the nation, and last season was no exception as they ranked fourth in scoring defense (13.9 ppg) and fifth in total defense (286.5 ypg).
The unit will be without superstar playmakers C.J. Mosley (108 tackles, 9.0 TFL) and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (52 tackles, two INTs) this season, but the team is used to a high turnover with stud players being selected at the top of the NFL Draft year after year, and there are always players waiting in the wings to step up in bigger roles.
Safety Landon Collins (70 tackles, two INTs, two FF), linebacker Trey Depriest (65 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson (8.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks) are the most experienced returnees, and all three were Preseason First Team All-SEC selections.
Although players like DE Jarran Reed, LBs Denzel Devall and Reggie Regland and CB Bradley Sylve were all buried on the depth chart last season, all were highly recruited and are expected to make a strong leap forward in production as full-time players.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Adam Griffith will take over as the place kicker. He was just 1-of-3 on field goals last season playing behind Cade Foster. JK Scott, a freshman, is the new punter.
In addition to his work as a receiver, Jones shined as a dynamic return man last season, fielding both punts (23 returns, 321 yards, two TDs) and kickoffs (22 returns, 631 yards, TD) to great results.
OUTLOOK: Saban has built an elite program in Tuscaloosa, and after reportedly turning down a $100 million offer from Texas in the offseason, it appears his commitment to keeping Alabama one of the nation's premiere football institutions is as strong as ever.
Despite the disappointing finish to last season, the Tide proved to be the country's most dominant team for the majority of the year, and enough pieces are in place to assume another strong run in 2014. Saban is quick to temper expectations, however.
"You've not picked the right team five years in a row," Saban joked at the SEC Media Days, where Alabama was selected by the writers to win the conference. "Every year you pick another team, we win the championship. We're a team that has a lot of question marks."
The road back to the SEC Championship Game won't be easy, especially when the team's schedule ticks up in November with make-or-break contests at LSU on Nov. 8 and at home against Auburn on Nov. 29. Alabama may be considered the conference favorite by most, but the SEC has become more balanced and wide- open in recent years.
Saban has a knack for getting his teams motivated however, especially after falling short of expectations -- the Tide went on to win back-to-back BCS titles following a disappointing 10-3 showing in 2010. Expect the team's motivation to be at an all-time high as it tries to reclaim the SEC throne.