HOOVER, Ala. — This year’s SEC Media Days had been especially boring until former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt’s lawsuit dropped on Wednesday. The drama surrounding Rebels coach Hugh Freeze won’t be the first time a pending case added to the intrigue. In 2004, Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer handled his Media Days duties by phone from Knoxville because he would have been served with a subpoena if he set foot in the state of Alabama.
The difference between 2004 and now is that back then, the legal drama wasn’t the only interesting aspect of the four-day circus. The football, ostensibly the reason everyone is here, promised plenty of intrigue, too. This year? It feels like Alabama and everyone else—just as it did last year. Since losing the Kick-Six game to Auburn in November 2013, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide have so thoroughly dominated the SEC that they’ve sucked all the competitive oxygen from a league that used to produce multiple national title contenders on an annual basis. And unless some teams have improved dramatically in the offseason, it doesn’t feel like anyone is ready to close the gap.
Tide coach Nick Saban launched his appearance Wednesday with a crack that probably turned the stomachs of his fellow coaches. “I’m kind of proud of the fact that this is my 16th SEC Media Day, the 11th at Alabama,” Saban said. “I'm sure that there’s nobody in this room that thought that would ever happen when it started out 11 years ago.” Couple this with recent comments from the 65-year-old Saban that he has no intention of retiring anytime soon, and that means misery for the rest of the league.
Since 2014, Alabama has gone 25–2 in SEC play, won three SEC titles and reached the College Football Playoff three times. The average margin in those SEC games is an 18.2-point Alabama win. Take out Ole Miss, which beat Alabama in ’14 and ’15 and which pushed the Tide in a five-point Alabama win last year, and the number jumps to 20.8. With the Rebels’ recruiting hamstrung in recent years by an NCAA case, the one team that had figured out how to compete with the Tide could be headed downhill. So it’ll be up to the teams that have averaged a three-touchdown whipping from Alabama to find a way to hang with the Tide.
While Alabama’s dominance is great for everyone in Tuscaloosa, it’s terrible for the health of the SEC. Even ultra-passionate fanbases such as the ones that populate this conference will check out if the final result is a fait accompli. To keep everyone engaged, someone else needs to have a chance. It will be up to a few programs to create that competitive balance, because Saban isn’t showing any signs of slowing on the recruiting trail or on the field. “They’re right now at the top,” said Florida’s Jim McElwain, whose team has lost to Alabama by an average of 26 points in the past two SEC title games. “It’s up to the rest of us to go get them.”
Since splitting into divisions in 1992, the SEC has had one similar period of sustained dominance. Florida won four consecutive titles (’93–’96), but the difference was that Tennessee also went 25-6-1 in SEC play those seasons. Even though Florida-Tennessee was the real conference title game, at least it felt like more than one team had a shot. The Big Ten endured a similar period in the first decade of this century with Ohio State winning or sharing the title in five consecutive seasons, but the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against Michigan in 2006 and two excellent Penn State seasons kept things somewhat lively.
Alabama’s recent teams have destroyed optimism in the rest of the SEC, and the beatings the Tide have laid on some teams have changed seasons. Tennessee entered last season’s meeting with Alabama at 5–1. The Volunteers had already beaten division rivals Florida and Georgia and brimmed with hope despite a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M the week before. Alabama crushed Tennessee 49–10, and even an open date the following week didn’t help the Vols regroup. They lost to South Carolina in their next game, effectively killing their SEC East title hopes. Texas A&M, meanwhile, has allowed its season to be derailed multiple times by losses to the Tide. In 2014, the Aggies entered the Alabama game with a 5–0 record. After getting hammered 41–23, they went on to lose four of their final seven games. Last year, Texas A&M headed to Tuscaloosa with a 6–0 record, lost 33–14 and went 2–4 the rest of the way. “That one can take its toll on you,” Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said of the Alabama game. “I think it took its toll on us the last couple of years, matter of fact. So we’ve got to do a better job of handling things mentally.”
No one understands the need to close the gap on Alabama better than LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who is LSU’s coach in large part because Les Miles lost his last five meetings against Alabama. The Tigers lost 10–0 to the Tide at home last season, and Orgeron believes his team is closer than most to Alabama. “It was 0–0 going into the third quarter. Their quarterback made two plays. We didn’t,” Orgeron said. “I don’t know if it’s that big of a gap. I think we need to play our football.” But Orgeron is keenly aware that to beat Alabama on the field, he also has to beat the Tide in recruiting. He’s also LSU’s coach in large part because some great Louisiana high-schoolers (Eddie Lacy, Landon Collins, Cam Robinson, Tim Williams) have helped fuel Alabama’s success in the Saban era. “They are the benchmark,” Orgeron said. “I think the way to beat Alabama is to recruit on their level. They are recruiting at a high level now, and they do a great job of evaluation.”
Some schools have tried to compete with the Tide by hiring former Saban assistants who might emulate their former boss. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are all led by former Saban coordinators. Georgia’s Kirby Smart knows he was hired to bring Saban’s process to Athens, and he also knows that his employer expects similar results. “The biggest thing is recruiting and development,” said Smart, who worked for Saban from 2007 to ’15. “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 got something special. 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. But you can only do that through hard work and grinding, and that’s what we continue to do in Athens.”
Perhaps Smart sees something we don’t, because outside the football complexes in Athens, Auburn, Gainesville and Baton Rouge, the gap feels larger than ever.