HOOVER, Ala. — For as mundane and, frankly, flat as this year’s edition of SEC media days were, Alabama head coach Nick Saban served up a comment that when looked at in the right context should serve as an elephant-sized gut punch to the league.
In a moment in which some thought the 65-year-old Saban had either lost his marbles or was hinting at a future in bad stand-up comedy, Saban offered this compliment to the rest of the SEC.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for a lot of teams in our league,” Saban said. “I am trying to think of somebody in our league that I don’t have a tremendous amount of respect for. … I think there’s a lot of parity in our league. I think it’s very challenging from a consistency standpoint in our league.
“So I have tremendous amount of respect, and I don’t see us being any different than anybody else when it comes to the challenges of preparation and getting ready to play really good teams that we have a tremendous amount of respect for.”
It was a nice try at lifting up a group that’s eons away from him and his program — he even threw in how young his team is! — but it carried little weight in a big room of media minds. Saban might be trying to insinuate that teams are a lot closer to the top — where his team sits comfortably — but that isn’t remotely true.
There is parity, yes, but only behind Saban and his Crimson Tide. No, teams in the league do not prepare, develop or build the same way Alabama does. That’s why the league is a one-team league and the gap is so big right now that it almost seems foolish to even think about picking someone besides Alabama to win the conference as long as Saban is coaching in Tuscaloosa.
“The consistency of that program over the years did not come overnight,” said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who is 1-4 against Saban’s Tide during his time with the Aggies. “I think people understand that. But you can’t argue that that is the mark, and that’s where everybody wants to be.
“You can win a lot of games in the West, and that one can take its toll on you. I think it took its toll on us the last couple of years, matter of fact.”
Alabama takes its toll on everyone. In the last three seasons, the Tide have owned the league, winning 25 of 27 games against SEC opponents. The only SEC West opponent to beat Alabama since Auburn’s magical kick-six win in 2013 is Ole Miss (twice) and the SEC East is 0-9.
Of Alabama’s 25 wins over SEC opponents in three seasons, 20 have been by double figures, including the last eight — which Alabama won by a combined 219 points (27.4-point margin of victory). During that stretch, five different SEC teams have won 10 games, but there’s been little Western challenge to the Tide and the East has been widely considered as one of the nation’s worst divisions.
Alabama has been the national darling, with three College Football Playoff appearances and a 1-1 record in the national title game. But the weight of the program is dragging the rest of the league down, creating 13 onlookers and sacrificial lambs.
Even trips to Atlanta have become mundane for the Tide, as Alabama has pulverized the East champion 125-44 in three games.
“I don’t know the gap itself [between Alabama and the rest of the SEC],” said Jim McElwain, whose Gators have been outscored by 52 points by Alabama in the last two SEC title games. “I do understand this: They’re right now at the top, and, you know, it’s up to the rest of us to go get them.”
The gap is considerable, but recruiting is the key to taking steps toward dethroning the Tide. The good news is that SEC teams have taken full advantage of the fertile recruiting ground they have access to in the South. While Alabama has hauled in three No. 1 classes in the last four years, the league has seen 16 other top-10 classes in ESPN’s class rankings.
The level of head coaches might not be on par with what it was in Saban’s early Alabama years (Urban Meyer, Mark Richt, Phillip Fulmer and Les Miles), but the amount of talent this league brings in is still enormous. And if you’re going to take quality swipes at Alabama’s power structure, you have to consistently recruit at an elite level.
“The biggest thing is recruiting and development,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who spent nine seasons with Saban at Alabama and signed this year’s No. 3 class. “And I think every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up in regards to that. I think each one’s getting closer, and we’d like to see that gap closed through recruiting.”
Saban is the one, true king of the SEC. He sits on the league’s iron throne, and while a few teams are jockeying to overthrow him, none enter 2017 fit to even touch his feet. And with Saban having no intentions of stepping down anytime soon, the league’s game of catch-up will only tire people out.