Not surprisingly, the program pursuing its third consecutive national championship is also turning out NFL draft picks at a level not seen since the Miami Hurricanes' talent pool last peaked in the early 2000s. Coach Nick Saban's team is 25-2 over the last two seasons with narrow losses to LSU (2011) and Texas A&M (2012). This year's team will have a revamped offensive line and some inexperience in the secondary, but it is loaded with weapons at the offensive skill positions, and its usual blend of size and speed in the defensive front seven.
Despite the loss of multiple juniors turning pro early for four consecutive years, the Crimson Tide's roster remains stocked with championship-level players who will also be prized draft picks in time. Saban models his program after an NFL team in multiple ways, including a pro-style offense, pro-modeled terminology and an NFL-like conditioning program. Consequently, NFL coaches frequently remark on Alabama players making smoother-than-normal transitions to the Sunday league. Saban, in turn, makes a recruiting tool of that reputation.
Top senior prospects
QB AJ McCarron: The third-year starter returns with a 25-2 record at the helm and a career TD-INT ratio of 46-8. He has NFL arm strength and figures to be among the top quarterbacks selected in the 2014 NFL Draft. McCarron has benefitted from a dominant rushing attack, allowing him to throw over eight-man fronts on a regular basis.
CB Deion Belue: The junior college transfer was a full-time starter last year in his first season in the program. He struggled at times but steadily improved, and was among the team's most consistent players in spring practice. Smallish for an NFL corner, Belue possesses plenty of speed.
LB C.J. Mosley: The weakside linebacker is Alabama's most valuable and productive defensive player, having been at least a part-time starter since his freshman season. He excels playing in space as an open-field tackler and in pass coverage. Draft question marks will include his size and injury history, which is marred by two dislocations (elbow, hip).
DE Ed Stinson: A classic 3-4 defensive end, Stinson has developed from a pass-rushing linebacker to a 290-pound stalwart who can hold his own against the run. Stinson is not a sack master, but is consistently disruptive.
OL Anthony Steen: One of only two starters returning on Alabama's offensive line, Steen is an experienced right guard who excels in drive blocking for the running game. He gave some consideration to turning pro early last year.
OL Cyrus Kouandjio: Kouandjio belongs in the same sentence with Jake Matthews of Texas A&M in any discussion of the SEC's top offensive tackles. He enjoyed a dominant sophomore season, his first full season as a healthy starter. Kouandjio excels in pass protection and has the long arms and frame scouts love at left tackle.
DL Jeoffrey Pagan: Pagan makes the move from part-time contributor to full-time starter this season, and by all accounts, he is more than ready. Pagan can play end in a 3-4, or slide inside to tackle when Alabama goes to a four-man front in passing situations. The junior must have a stellar season to be a strong early-entry candidate for the 2014 draft. At this point, a 2015 draft projection is more likely.
WR Amari Cooper: As an upcoming true sophomore, Cooper is ineligible for the 2014 draft but could be a junior entry for 2015. Cooper is a highlight machine. He pulled in 1,000 receiving yards last season with 11 touchdowns as a true freshman, and played his best in Alabama's biggest games against the likes of Georgia and Notre Dame.
RB T.J. Yeldon: Like Cooper, Yeldon was a true freshman last year and won't be on the NFL draft radar until 2015 at the earliest. But he wasted no time establishing himself as a co-starter with Eddie Lacy (the second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers), and proved to be a complete player as a receiver and pass blocker.
LB Adrian Hubbard: Following the NFL draft in April, Hubbard was named by many services as a potential first-round prospect as a 2014 early-entry candidate. His size (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and speed are outstanding, but he'll need big production in 2013 to make that draft projection a reality. Hubbard led Alabama in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (11), but needs to improve open-field tackling and mental focus.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31 vs. Virginia Tech: The neutral-site game in Atlanta opens the season for both teams and is the marquee matchup on both of their non-conference schedules.
Sept. 14 at Texas A&M: Alabama looks to avenge its only loss of the 2012 season in College Station, where the Aggies' crowd advantage is one of the biggest in college football.
Nov. 9 vs. LSU: What has been the SEC's most prolific regular-season matchup for the last several years promises to again be appointment television.