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COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS a game of mercurial bounces, tip-of-the-finger deflections and freak injuries, and it requires good fortune as much as good fundamentals to navigate through a season undefeated. Just ask Kansas State, the reigning Big 12 champ, which lost 24--21 at home last Friday night to a big-hearted team from the backwaters of the Football Championship Subdivision, North Dakota State (page 39). The sport is riveting not just because Davids can beat Goliaths, but also because that one loss can crushed a title contender's hopes—even if that contender is littered with five-star recruits on its third string.
Which brings us to the question that hangs over the nation as the 2013 season gets under way: Can anyone take down No. 1 Alabama?
The Crimson Tide's opener last Saturday no doubt emboldened those who say yes. In the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, Alabama looked mortal, allowing Virginia Tech to sack AJ McCarron four times and rushing for only 96 yards. But for those who say no, there was this: Christion Jones emerged as a star, and Bama won 35--10, evaporating the Hokies' dreams of an upset by the second quarter. The next big referendum on coach Nick Saban & Co. will take place on Sept. 14. That's when they travel to College Station to face Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, which last November became only the fifth team to beat the Tide in the last four years, during which they have won three BCS titles.
Even before the Virginia Tech game several rival coaches, a few ex-Alabama staff members and some former Tide players—all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting Saban—thought Bama would lose at least once this autumn. "You have to play a near-perfect game, but they have some vulnerable points," says a coach. "This giant can be slayed."
Those coaches and former players went on to lay out a daring game plan for attacking Alabama. Based on their inside information, SI put together an eight-step, how-to guide for any team hoping to keep Saban and friends out of the national championship. Of course, executing any of these steps is a challenge, and pulling off enough of them to down the defending champs is something few have accomplished—including some of those offering up the advice.
HAVE A QUARTERBACK WHO CAN MAKE PLAYS WITH HIS FEET AND COMPLETE AT LEAST A FEW INTERMEDIATE AND DEEP THROWS
In the summer of 2011, on a languid, lemonade-sipping kind of afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Saban sat in his wood-paneled corner office on the second floor of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility and described the thing that haunts him most: a talented dual-threat quarterback.
"Even when you've called the right defense and your defense does everything right, that kind of quarterback can still beat you by improvising," he said. "It's the stuff you can't really plan for that always brings a high level of concern. I mean, it can drive you crazy as a coach."
The reason for Saban's fear? Of the five teams that have beaten Alabama since 2010, four had quarterbacks who were dangerous on the ground as well as through the air: LSU's Jordan Jefferson in 2010 and '11; Auburn's Cam Newton in '10; and Manziel last season. (The one exception was South Carolina's Stephen Garcia in '10, but even he rushed for 20 yards on the Gamecocks' second scoring drive en route to a 35--21 victory.)