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Alabama is No. 3, because how could a Nick Saban team be any lower?

Alabama is No. 3, because how could a Nick Saban team be any lower?
Alabama coach Nick Saban runs on to the field with his team prior to the start of a game against Texas A&M on Nov. 10, 2012. (Dave Martin / AP)

The Times' annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with the pick for No. 3.

Alabama probably doesn't have enough returning starters to justify a ranking this high, but sometimes you just have to bet on the coach.

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Lane Kiffin was, frankly, bubble-screen brilliant in 2014 as the Crimson Tide offense rewrote the school's record book.

You know what that means: One more quality season could earn Kiffin his fourth head coaching position before age 41.

He might make a perfect choice for a school out West willing to give him a second chance … ah, never mind.

Alabama could be great this season provided Kiffin gets a little coaching help from the man known for stout defenses.

That would be Nick Saban, who watched his point stoppers fall apart at the end of 2014. Alabama's defense gave up 44 points and 630 yards in a win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

After Alabama's rebound effort against Missouri in the Southeastern Conference title game, Ohio State rolled the Tide for 42 points and 537 yards in the Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff.

For context, Bear Bryant's 1961 Alabama defense gave up 25 points all season.

It must kill Saban that he can't control everything that moves. Last month, unprovoked, he announced he was opposed to the publication of "unauthorized biographies — for anybody."

Particularly the one just released about Saban.

"There's really only one expert on my life," Saban said, "And guess who that is?"

If it wasn't for that 1st Amendment, Saban just might be able to do something about it.

It also must kill Saban to know he is right about so many things, most recently his warning that high-tempo offenses were making it much harder to play defense.

He feared spread-option offenses, such as those being run at SEC places like Auburn and Texas A&M, would ultimately force him to adapt.

After failing in an audacious ploy to seek legislation to slow down play, Saban capitulated and hired Kiffin. That led to a school-record average of 277.9 passing yards per game. The no-huddle, though, was no bargain for the defensive philosophy he entrusts to coordinator Kirby Smart.

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"I think at the end of last season we ran out of gas a little bit," Saban said.

That's OK so long as gas prices keep falling and his young defense keeps aging. The Crimson Tide could boast the best front seven in college football, and the secondary should also be better after a wobbly season.

Saban still hasn't named a starting quarterback, leading some to believe he might not have one. The bet is that Jake Coker, the transfer from Florida State who lost the job last year to Blake Sims, will win out over Alec Morris.

Saban could play both in the opener against Wisconsin and see how it plays out.

He says the problem in naming a quarterback too soon can lead to having to "un-name" him, and "what good does that do?"

Saban, remember, allowed AJ McCarron versus Phillip Sims to drag into the season. McCarron ended up with the job, Sims ended up transferring and Alabama ended up winning two national titles.

The offense has only two returning starters, yet, as you'll recall, South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier has called Saban the "greatest recruiter in the history of college football."

A coach with Kiffin's acumen should be able to mold what he's been handed into something that can score more points than Saban's defense allows.

Top 25 so far: 25. Michigan. 24. Nebraska. 23. Utah. 22. Missouri. 21. Arkansas. 20 Tennessee. 19. Boise State. 18. Oklahoma. 17. Notre Dame. 16.Wisconsin. 15. Georgia Tech. 14. UCLA 13. Arizona. 12. Florida State. 11. Arizona State. 10. Georgia. 9. USC. 8. Auburn. 7. Clemson. 6. Baylor. 5. Michigan State. 4. Oregon.

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