In the SEC, another high Tide expected
High-powered Alabama again is team to beat in tough conference
HOOVER, Ala. — When it’s not beating up on each other in the fall, the Southeastern Conference likes to consider itself a family in the winter.
When Alabama of the SEC lost to Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference on the last play of last season’s national title game, the rest of the SEC lowered its collective head. Not because it was feeling bad for Alabama in a familial kind of way — it was feeling bad for itself.
The SEC’s 13 other members figured Alabama would spend the next year mad, and taking it out on its little brothers.
“We hear things, like, ‘Alabama is not Alabama anymore,’ ” Crimson Tide receiver Calvin Ridley said during last week’s SEC Media Days. “That Alabama lost to Clemson.”
Yes, the Crimson Tide lost to Clemson 35-31, but it was Alabama’s lone loss in a 14-1 season. Nine of those victories came against SEC opponents, and the Crimson Tide own a 17-game winning streak against the rest of their family members.
“That is the mark that everybody wants to be,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said of Nick Saban’s Alabama program. “They were ahead of the curve a long time ago with how they approach things, and it’s the model you try to follow.”
The SEC has won eight of the last 11 national titles, but Alabama is responsible for half of those championships. Saban was hired in 2007, and the Crimson Tide have won four titles since 2009. Florida under thencoach Urban Meyer won national championships in 2006 and 2008, but no other program has come close to sniffing the Crimson Tide’s success over the past decade. Recruiting the key
Alabama missed on a fifth national championship in the last eight seasons when now-Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow on a 2-yard touchdown pass with one second remaining. Clemson’s stunning comeback snapped Alabama’s 26-game winning streak.
“Whether you win or lose, you’re always trying to self-assess, to see what we need to do to get better,” Saban said. “When you lose, the mindset is much more, ‘I’m willing to change. I want to learn. I don’t want to waste a failure.’ Everybody’s hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game.
“But it wasn’t the last play, it’s what led up to the last play. Our players realize that.”
Alabama, which opens its season on Sept. 2 in Atlanta against ACC power Florida State, again is the overwhelming choice to win the SEC, in earning 217 of 243 votes in a media poll. So is there any hope for the rest of the league to catch up, or at least close the gap with a program that has been ranked No. 1 in six of the last seven Rivals.com recruiting classes?
“The way to beat Alabama,” new LSU coach Ed Orgeron said, “is to recruit on their level.”
Florida under coach Jim McElwain has won the SEC East the past two seasons, only to careen into the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game. Alabama won those two by a combined 52 points.
“We talk about that, even outside of workouts,” Florida defensive back Duke Dawson said of the lopsided outcomes, and what the Gators must do to make their shot at glory more competitive.
Georgia is picked to win the SEC East this season, meaning if the predictions play out the Bulldogs will earn their chance in Atlanta against the West’s mightiest member. Kirby Smart, who served as Saban’s defensive coordinator from 2008-15, is in his second season coaching Georgia.
“That’s a common question at this event,” Smart said during the media days of what it will take for the rest of the league to compete with Alabama. “The biggest thing is recruiting and development. A lot of people say it’s one or the other, do you recruit great players or do you develop great players?
“When you do both, that’s when you’ve got something special. Every team in the conference is trying to play catch-up in that regard. You can only do that through hard work and grinding, and that’s what we continue to do.”
Saban, 65, is unmatched in the Hard Work and Grinding department. The West Virginia native and former Kent State defensive back once served as the Oilers’ defensive backs coach from 1988-89, and over the decades has earned a reputation as the most driven coach in college football.
He’s served as head coach at Michigan State, LSU and even had a brief, largely unsuccessful stint as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach from 2005-06, prior to taking the Alabama job. ‘Target on our back’
“There’s nobody right now doing it better, when you look at the longevity of his program and how he’s built it,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “He is what he is, all of the time.”
Saban also somehow reinforces the misguided notion in his players that they’re the underdogs — a near-miraculous achievement in an age of social media self-promotion and digital pats on the back from adoring fans.
“There’s always something to prove, no matter who you are,” Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “For us, it’s having a target on our back.”
Added a serious Ridley to the unmanageable smiles of a handful of reporters: “We’ve won a lot, but a lot of people still don’t respect us. We have to work hard because teams aren’t afraid of us. Every game is going to be hard for us.”
Not as hard as they will be for their opponents, if recent history is a guide.
“The goal is to win an SEC championship,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, whose program is picked to finish second in the SEC West. “To do that, you’ve got to beat Alabama. The last two times we beat them, we won the league and played for the national championship.”
Malzahn, searching for optimism in analyzing Alabama, finally found one.
“We’ve got them at home,” he said. “That’s a positive.”
Last season, former Channelview standout Jalen Hurts, right, became the first true freshman to start at quarterback at Alabama in 30 years.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has guided the Crimson Tide to 17 consecutive victories against Southeastern Conference opponents.