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Is the SEC’s future too tied to a single ship?

Jul 12, 2017; Hoover, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban speaks to media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 12, 2017; Hoover, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban speaks to media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas |  @TideFansJessN Editor-In-Chief
June 26, 2017

Most of the time, the football offseason is spent dissecting recruiting classes and picking nits over changes in rules and penalty enforcement. This year, at least in the SEC, the tenor of the discussion is a bit different.

Alabama lost to Clemson in the College Football Playoff final in January. Alabama losing in national championship games happens so infrequently that if you google the term “when was the last time Alabama lost a national championship game,” there are no direct answers. Only links to lists of Alabama’s titles, all-Americans, conference championships and the like. If anything, Alabama last lost in a title matchup in 1973, to Notre Dame, and still wound up with a split title thanks to UPI voting on its champion before bowl games were played.

Since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s already undisputed place atop the SEC landscape has only grown in altitude. Saban, who had won a national title at LSU prior to taking the Alabama job, has won four more national titles since 2007. Had Alabama knocked off Clemson in January, Saban would have tied Paul “Bear” Bryant for total number of titles, but would have done it at a substantially quicker pace. Many already believe Saban has supplanted Bryant as the best college coach that ever was; a win over Clemson would have galvanized those opinions.

But what of the SEC as a whole? How does a conference deal with having a program like Alabama as a member?

It’s not just about Nick Saban and Paul Bryant, it’s also about Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas and Gene Stallings. It’s also about Harold Drew and Xen Scott, and yes, even Bill Curry and Mike DuBose. To put it this way: There’s a room at the Bryant Museum where has assisted the museum staff in the past on podcasts; there are trophies stuffed under the tables in that room because the museum simply doesn’t have the space to display them.

The problem for the modern-day SEC is that such domination creates a problem at the other 13 member schools: Who wants to sign up to coach against these mad elephants? has long produced an article wherein the roster of SEC coaches is ranked, first to last. At the top is most undoubtedly Nick Saban. Second and third, without dispute at this point, is Florida’s Jim McElwain and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. McElwain has more hardware, both from his days at (where else) Alabama as offensive coordinator, and from his back-to-back SEC East wins, but Mullen has probably done more with less overall. He’s just had the very unfortunate position of having to play in the same division as Saban’s Alabama.

Which brings up this question: Is all this talk of realigning the divisions coming from teams wanting to get away from Alabama, or from teams wanting Alabama to go the heck somewhere else?

It may be funny to joke about such things, or from an Alabama fan’s perspective, to just sit back and take stock of the state of the program. Alabama is arguably having its high-water mark as a program, and “Bear” Bryant isn’t even involved in it. But there is a reality, too, that unless some of Alabama’s rivals figure out how to get the transmission out of neutral, the conference as a whole risks being known as Alabama And Its Thirteen Disciples.

Take a look at what Alabama, under Saban, has triggered around the conference: Ole Miss changed its recruiting strategy, opting for something a bit more … aggressive. Result? The NCAA is about to bring the hammer down in Oxford, and the Rebels’ 2017 recruiting class already got hammered from proactive fallout, if there is such a thing. In doing so, Ole Miss sadly proved that without those “aggressive” tactics, the Rebels just aren’t a power in the SEC West.

LSU fired a national championship-winning coach, the perpetually unique Les Miles, and replaced him with a former failed Ole Miss coach simply because he proved he could recruit a little while in Oxford (although it remains to be seen, pending the NCAA’s findings, how much if any of the Rebels’ current troubles go back to Ed Orgeron’s days there). Auburn made a curious move to go after former Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, even though Steele’s actual on-field products have been sometimes lacking.

But if the SEC West was panicking, the SEC East had a full-blown meltdown. Florida hired, then fired Saban protege Will Muschamp, who was then hired again by South Carolina after Steve Spurrier retired. Florida replaced Muschamp with another Saban protege, Jim McElwain. So far, McElwain has proven to be every bit the field coach Florida hoped he would be, but the Gators’ recruiting has failed to impress.

Georgia hired sitting Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to replace Mark Richt and his automatic 10 wins per year. Granted, Smart is a Georgia alum, but he had no previous head coaching experience. His first year was uneven. More is expected, and soon.

Whether Kentucky hired Mark Stoops because he’s related to one of the few guys Saban has had a little trouble with (former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops) isn’t known, but it certainly didn’t hurt his case.

But the zenith of Bama panic was found in Knoxville, where the following happened: Phil Fulmer, who Saban had previously undressed in front of a national audience in 2001 in the SEC Championship Game, got stomped by a makeshift Bama squad in 2007 and defeated again in 2008, and then quit. Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin, who spent one season in Knoxville, came oh-so-close to upsetting Alabama during its 2009 championship run, and then vamoosed to California to take over USC, before eventually coming to Alabama as offensive coordinator and beating Tennessee thrice. Then the Vols went after a Nick Saban protege, Derek Dooley, who wasn’t ready for prime time, before handing the program over to Butch Jones, who has curiously opted for a mix of self-promotion and a soft spread offense as a way to knock off Alabama. It’s not working.

And now, Phil Fulmer comes back to Tennessee as a special assistant to the president, months after being a candidate for the athletic director’s job vacated by Dave Hart, an Alabama grad who was hired away from Alabama to replicate Alabama in Knoxville. Again, it didn’t work. One also has to wonder how new AD John Currie, himself a Tennessee masters program grad, feels with Fulmer looking over his shoulder.

The end result is now an SEC that has a dearth of head coaching talent – honestly, who wants to come to this meat grinder of a conference when other paths are much easier? – several programs in flux, an active NCAA investigation at one school being called by some observers the worst they’ve seen in years, and the lack of a legitimate contender to Alabama’s crown for at least 2017 and maybe beyond.

Alabama fans love to make fun of Auburn, but give the Tigers credit: They identified their current coach in 2013, have largely stood behind him and as such, appear to be the solid No. 2 of the SEC West this year. That kind of stability passes for granite when compared to what’s going on around the region.

But it isn’t good for the SEC. It’s wonderful for Alabama and its fans; for the SEC, perhaps not. One of the reasons Alabama has gotten what has amounted to automatic bids into college football’s final four the last few years is the perception of the toughness of the conference, and respect for Alabama’s place in it. If the conference as a whole starts to disintegrate, a one-loss Alabama team needing the benefit of the doubt might not get it.

Perhaps that’s why this offseason has been the quietest in years. The SEC continues to vet potential 15th and 16th teams for future expansion, but for the most part, conference officials just want the season to get here. Perhaps an unexpected contender will emerge, a challenger to both Saban and Alabama. Because the one thing you know is going to happen is this: The Crimson Tide will be hanging around at the end.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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