Winning depends on the fourth quarter, or so the story goes. Teams never rush out of their locker room holding up one finger to signify that they are going to dominate the first quarter, after all.

That’s been the case with the Alabama football schedule, too, in recent years. The drama has come in November with LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn (and an always undramatic non-conference game.) Last year, Alabama didn’t have to dominate that stretch to make the College Football Playoff, overcoming a loss to Auburn. But the rule of thumb usually holds: it’s a fourth-quarter game.

Still, there’s something intriguing about the first three games on Alabama’s schedule, not just Louisville, the team that the Crimson Tide is now in full-scale preparation to face.

This isn’t pulling the panic whistle as Casey Jones wheels Ol’ 98 into an unforeseen but cataclysmic collision. Alabama will be favored by three touchdowns or more against Louisville, Arkansas State and Ole Miss and a win by any of the three would be an upset of shocking proportions.

Here’s what all three of those teams have, or at least appear to have: a quarterback with offensive weapons around him, going against an Alabama defense that has minimal experience and, at some spots, a possible depth deficiency. We can’t quite be sure what Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass will bring to the table because he’s been behind Cardinal record-setter Lamar Jackson so far in his career.

But the Columbus, Georgia, native was highly recruited by both Alabama and Auburn before choosing Louisville (and casting some serious shade on Auburn when he said after his commitment ceremony that nearby AU “wasn’t going to prepare me for the next level.” No one is saying that he will be Lamar Jackson 2.0 but he is the sort of dual-threat quarterback that used to deal the Crimson Tide headaches, although changes in defensive recruiting have reduced those headaches somewhat.

If Pass is unproven, Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen is not. Like Pass, he was a big-time high school recruit, eventually choosing Oklahoma. He left Norman after one redshirt year, spent a year in junior college, took over the quarterback position in his first game with ASU (sending the previous starter to Wally Pipp Limbo) and has thrown for over 6,600 yards since then.

The Red Wolves may not have SEC talent across the board but Hansen, last year’s Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, is easily of that caliber. Then comes Ole Miss — a dynamic quarterback in Jordan Ta’amu, an All-American receiver in A.J. Brown and what will surely be the usual Oxford-at-night crowd.

The common thread, starting with Pass and his offensively innovative coach Bobby Petrino, is that these teams can score points. And that brings the circle back to Tuscaloosa, where Nick Saban has to decide the best way to match that.

There is no shortage of playmakers — in fact, with a healthy Josh Jacobs and a promising freshman in Jaylen Waddle to go along with all the experienced talent from last year, it may be the most diverse arsenal ever on a Crimson Tide offense. Will that enter into Nick Saban’s quarterback decision? It seems as if it would almost have to do so.

Gene Stallings in his tenure at Alabama would always, as part of his private pregame preparation, write down the number of points that he thought the Crimson Tide needed to score to win that week’s game. (That number was probably somewhere around “4,” but we digress…) Saban may not put a number on paper, but strategically he has to be doing the same thing. With a defense in transition and three potentially explosive opponents right out of the chute, a low number won’t cut ice. That has to be a part of his decision process — one that can’t be delayed until the fourth quarter.

Reach Cecil Hurt at or 205-722-0225