In the SEC, an­other high Tide ex­pected

High-pow­ered Alabama again is team to beat in tough con­fer­ence

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SOCCER | COLLEGES - By Brent Zw­erne­man brent.zw­erne­man@chron.com twit­ter.com/brentzw­erne­man

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.”

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Last sea­son, for­mer Chan­nelview stand­out Jalen Hurts, right, be­came the first true fresh­man to start at quar­ter­back at Alabama in 30 years.

Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban has guided the Crim­son Tide to 17 con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries against South­east­ern Con­fer­ence op­po­nents.

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