The 3-game nonconference warmup act has ended, and Alabama has made it safely through with a perfect 3-0 record — if a far-from-perfect trio of performances against Utah State, Texas and Louisiana-Monroe.

Along the way, the Crimson Tide lost its No. 1 ranking in the AP poll after its wobbly Week 2 victory over the unranked Longhorns in Austin, and then lost its top ranking in the coaches’ poll on Sunday despite disposing of the Sun Belt’s Warhawks by 56 points a day earlier in Tuscaloosa.

So when Bama welcomes Vanderbilt to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night for its SEC opener, it will have a 2 next to its name in both polls. The program it is chasing as it begins another conference gauntlet is the one it couldn’t chase down in last season’s national title game, Stetson Bennett’s Georgia Bulldogs, who unseated the Tide in both polls while outscoring their first 3 foes by a ridiculous 130-10 combined.

Bama didn’t do too badly, either, in its first 3 contests, with a 55-0 thrashing of Utah State and a 63-7 pounding of Louisiana-Monroe sandwich around that 20-19 close call at Texas that just might’ve been more about how far the Longhorns have come than how much the Tide have slid. After all, unranked Texas is now ranked Texas, as the Horns zoomed into both polls 1 day after they almost took down the Tide. Texas is now No. 22 in the AP poll and No. 19 in the coaches’ poll, so that shaky win might end up looking a lot different come late November.

But that’s more than 2 months away, which in college football terms is very far into the future. Right now for Nick Saban’s team, it’s all about attacking its SEC opener and the 3-1 Commodores, who might also be much better than most thought. To celebrate the start of the conference season and the Tide’s always-arduous 8-game journey through the SEC jungle, we give you 8 reasons for Bama fans to be optimistic about the 2022 season amid those early season warts.

1. Look out for Cameron Latu

The senior tight end with the great hands can get lost on a team with Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr., but his return from an undisclosed illness after missing all of preseason camp and the season opener is absolutely huge for the Crimson Tide going forward. Latu had 4 catches in his 2022 debut against Texas and added 3 more in Saturday’s rout of Louisiana-Monroe.

On a team of big stars and swag, Latu is a true glue guy, and those are generally the guys who help you win big at the end of the day. Latu set a school record for touchdown receptions by a tight end last season with 8, and it should only take Latu and Young another game, maybe 2, to get back in rhythm. Look for Latu to make some big-time catches as the SEC gauntlet goes along.

2. The talents of Jahmyr Gibbs

He came to Tuscaloosa from Georgia Tech with a reputation as a Swiss army knife type, and that is exactly what Gibbs has been. In the opener against Utah State, he rushed for 93 yards, including a 58-yard run. In the tenuous Texas game, Gibbs was a difference-maker by air, catching 9 balls for 74 yards, including the go-ahead score from Young midway through the 4th quarter.

And Saturday against La.-Monroe, he showed his special teams prowess, taking a kickoff back 57 yards while still combining for 101 yards rushing and receiving. The junior plays possessed. His motor never stops. And his versatility will be a vital weapon for Young during the toughest moments of the Tide’s upcoming showdown games.

3. Anderson’s greatness

This is, of course, an obvious one, except that we put Anderson on the list because of what we expect him to deliver in the biggest games against Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Ole Miss. This is a special all-time Crimson Tide talent who has done it all (he even finally got his first pick-6 last Saturday), and we’re counting on the fact that he’ll shine brightest when it matters most.

Anderson made some uncharacteristic mental errors in the 3 nonconference games, even losing his composure a few times against Texas. He wasn’t himself. Maybe he was trying to be so dominant that he lost his focus. Maybe he was going a little too fast against lesser opponents. But the big games are coming soon. And Tide fans will be thankful that the possible No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft is on their side.

4. The Nick Saban Effect

Yes, we have to put Saban in there. It can’t be ignored that he’s probably the greatest coach in college football history, and he can be a difference-maker all by himself from the sideline. Saban can’t shut down KJ Jefferson or Hendon Hooker or Bennett from that sideline, but his experience in the biggest games over the past 20 years going back to his LSU days can’t be matched.

It doesn’t always mean he’s going to have the right answer, as we’ve seen in multiple national title game losses. But his presence and the discipline he demands — especially after the Tide’s early season missteps — usually gets Bama in position to be champions.

5. It’s really hard to repeat

Yes, Georgia has looked fantastic out of the gate, smashing a ranked Oregon team before smothering Samford and South Carolina in its SEC opener. Bennett has come back with a vengeance, and that defense looks ridiculously good. The Bulldogs have now stripped Bama of the No. 1 ranking in both polls. They are clearly the top dog now, no pun intended.

But it is really, really hard to repeat as national champion, especially out of the SEC. There are just so many roadblocks, so many things that can go wrong. Saban has done it only once during his Bama dynasty, in 2011 and 2012. His team will now try to prevent his pupil, Kirby Smart, from doing it in Athens.

6. Chemistry over time

It’s pretty apparent through 3 weeks that Young is still trying to find a rhythm with his new weapons. In that department, Gibbs looks far ahead of fellow transfer Jermaine Burton, who played great in the opener but has regressed in the past 2 games, catching just 3 passes combined.

But Burton was a key cog on a national title team last season. He has too much experience and talent to stay in this kind of a slump for too long, and you have to believe that he and Young are going to figure it out eventually.

7. Bama the underdog?

The perennial titans of college football are actually a bit of an underdog in 2022, and that should excite Tide fans and motivate Tide players. Georgia has taken over the mantle, for now, with its national title last season and No. 1 ranking this year. Some are even doubting whether the Tide can make it back to Atlanta, with landmines waiting in Fayetteville, Knoxville, Baton Rouge and Oxford.

Sometimes, for once, it’s better not to be the favorite. Bama should wear the rare underdog status well. Sure, there’s still a ton of pressure to win. But not being No. 1 might be the best thing that could’ve happened to this team so early in the season.

8. Bryce’s motivation

There’s nothing complex about this final one. Young won the Heisman Trophy last year and came within a quarter of winning a national title. He was denied in the cruelest of ways and didn’t play his best as Georgia stole the 2021 season’s final script. Young’s motivation to finish the job in 2022 should permeate the entire roster and coaching staff as the season progresses.

Just because he wants it so badly doesn’t mean Young is going to get it this time. But having such an accomplished player with that unique combination of talent and motivation is worth a whole lot.