HOOVER, Ala. — It took a touchdown pass with one second to go to deal Alabama its first national title loss under Nick Saban last January. Some things, though, still remain the same.
Alabama is the heavy favorite to win a fourth straight SEC title and if it’s July, the lobby of the Wynfrey Hotel will be filled like it was Wednesday during SEC Media Days with Crimson Tide faithful.
It was Alabama day and they wanted to be in the presence of Nick Saban, the closest thing to college football royalty.
For now the rest of the SEC is bowing at his majesty until the Crimson Tide stop running roughshod over them.
Alabama owns a 17-game winning streak against SEC teams and has won the last three league title games by 29, 14 and 38.
Saban, he of the 119-19 overall record at Alabama entering his 11th season, brushed all that aside on Wednesday when talking about those that could push the Tide.
He mentioned nine SEC teams by name, bringing up Ole Miss wins in 2014 and 2015, praising the quality quarterbacks at Arkansas and Mississippi State, etc.
“I’m trying to think of somebody that I don’t have a tremendous amount of respect for us,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of parity in our league. We have one of the youngest teams that we’ve ever had but it’s going to be hard for us to maintain the standard. I don’t see us being any different than anybody else.”
Others would beg to differ.
Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Florida are teams that could have the best chance to knock Alabama off its perch atop the league. The last SEC team other than Alabama to win a national title was Auburn in 2010.
“Each year is its own and certain things happen that you don’t have control over, and yet what you hope happens is you’ve taken care of a lot of the details along the way, that when something comes up, you can still be successful,” said Florida coach Jim McElwain, a former Alabama offensive coordinator who lost to Alabama the last two years in the SEC championship game. “That’s the great thing they’ve done in that program. And I don’t know the gap itself. You know, 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.”
It won’t surprise anyone if the topic is still front and center a year from now with teams still playing catch up.
“You know, that’s a common question at this event,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator. “And I think 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 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.”
Georgia had that gap closed for one year at least in 2012 but fell five yards short of the SEC title in a 32-28 loss.
“You’ve got to go out and outplay them and do everything right,” said Georgia senior tailback Nick Chubb, who was on the losing side of a 38-10 loss to Alabama in 2015 in Athens. “You can’t give them anything. You just have to be on your ‘A” game to beat those guys.”
There is a new offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa in Brian Daboll, who was plucked from another team that knows about winning championships, the New England Patriots. He replaces Lane Kiffin who was replaced for the title game by Steve Sarkisian, now with the Atlanta Falcons.
“I think he’s exactly what we’re looking for in terms of helping us redevelop a pro-style passing attack that would go with the athleticism with some of the spread offense that we’ve used with Jalen (Hurts) and our other quarterbacks,” Saban said.
Saban said there were lessons to be learned from the 35-31 title game loss to Clemson.
“Hopefully we won’t waste the failure,” he said.
When you have won four national championships in the previous seven years, being second best is a letdown.
“We’re not letting small things slide,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “That’s the reason we lost last year because we let little things slide towards the end of the season and the championship game. We lost because of small details.”
Hurts, the SEC offensive player of the year, gives Alabama its first returning starting quarterback since 2013. On the other side of the ball, Alabama lost seven defensive players who were selected in the NFL draft but as usual the roster is well-stocked with talent from elite recruiting classes.
“There’s a lot of hard competitors on our team, and with Coach Saban, we focus on the process,” offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman said. “We try to do things that other people don’t want to do or can’t do. We just push it, break down barriers, and knock down walls.”