SEC dominance can be broken up into three periods involving three coaches.
Bear Bryant. Steve Spurrier.
The Saban era has seen Alabama flourish with talent and championships. The Crimson Tide have won three consecutive SEC titles and five of the past 10. Saban’s Alabama teams have won four national championships and came seconds short of a fifth in last season’s thrilling 35-31 loss to Clemson.
Over the past decade, the SEC has stated its claim as the best conference in college football. But has Alabama become too good for even the rest of the conference?
The Crimson Tide’s reign hasn’t showed a sign of slowing down any time soon. Therefore, a fear exists that Alabama has widened the gap between itself and the rest of the SEC.
To be like Alabama, recruit like Alabama
Over the past 10 years, Alabama has – obviously – recruited better than any other team in the nation.
Beginning with the 2008 class, which was Saban’s first full recruiting cycle, Alabama has concluded National Signing Day with an average ranking of 1.7 in the 247Sports.com composite.
Since 2011, the Crimson Tide have finished with the nation’s top recruiting class every single season. In 2017 alone, Alabama signed six five-star recruits. To compare, Georgia has signed seven five-star prospects combined over the past three seasons.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who was an assistant under Saban from 2007-15, said recruiting the best players and developing them is the best way any team can catch up to Alabama.
“A lot of people say it's one or the other – do you recruit great players or do you develop great players?” Smart said. “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.”
Of late, Smart has done the greatest job competing with Alabama on the recruiting trail. Smart helped Georgia finish with the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class this past February, although it was still roughly 20 points behind Alabama’s, according to the 247Sports.com formula.
But Smart got quarterback Jake Fromm and offensive lineman Netori Johnson to eventually commit to Georgia after holding previous pledges to Alabama. In the class of 2018, running back Zamir White, offensive lineman Warren Ericson, cornerback Chris Smith and place-kicker Jake Camarda have all committed to Georgia while holding an Alabama offer.
LSU, which fired Les Miles last season and hired Ed Orgeron to replace him, has the fifth-ranked 2018 class, although it does not have a five-star prospect committed. Orgeron believes recruiting is the biggest key to catch Alabama.
“I think the way to beat Alabama is to recruit on their level,” Orgeron said. “They are recruiting at a high level now and they do a great job of evaluation. And coach your team very well, and get your team ready to play. Again, last year, we weren't that far off.”
Force a ‘momentary pause’ from Alabama
Alabama has only lost 11 games since 2010. In those losses, the opposing quarterback has brought a trait to the table that has helped even the playing field against some great defenses.
Here are the starting quarterbacks to beat Alabama in the past seven years: South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson (twice), Auburn’s Cam Newton, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, Mississippi’s Bo Wallace, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, Mississippi’s Chad Kelly and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
Each quarterback at least offered a threat to run the ball. It didn’t necessarily mean the quarterback was going to total a ton of yardage on the ground. It just meant that Alabama’s defense had to be aware of a run-pass option possibility.
That can prove valuable when playing a defense stockpiled full of five-star talent.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s just a running quarterback,” CBSSports.com analyst Barrett Sallee said. “Teams that can beat Alabama have the ability to give their defenders momentary pause by executing multiple facets of their offense.”
Again, this concept goes back to recruiting. Georgia, a pro-style factory for many years, is hoping to land dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields in the upcoming class. Miami, under former Georgia head coach Mark Richt, is also making a transition to using dual-threat quarterbacks.
Even Alabama, formerly a pro-style destination, has seen Blake Sims and Jalen Hurts under center in recent seasons. Hurts will be a sophomore in 2017.
Florida head coach Jim McElwain led his team to the SEC Championship in his first two seasons with the program. Quarterback play proved too much to overcome in both losses to Alabama. To counter this, McElwain went out and grabbed graduate transfer Malik Zaire – a dual-threat quarterback who he would have loved to play in either of the previous two SEC Championship games.
“You know, I do understand this,” McElwain said. “They're at the top, and it's up to the rest of us to go get them.”
But is the Alabama-SEC gap really that great?
Saban, at least on the record, believes the SEC has great parity.
He’s naturally going to say that, despite the dominance his teams have showcased. It can be argued that Saban’s winning ways played a role in forcing out SEC coaches such as Miles and Richt from their previous places of employment.
Miles won 77 percent of his games at LSU but went 3-7 against Saban. Richt, who won 74 percent of his games at Georgia, didn’t play Saban often. But his 2015 Georgia team was blown out by the Crimson Tide 38-10.
At SEC Media Days, Alabama was the overwhelming favorite to win the conference with 217 votes. Auburn finished second in voting with only 11. Georgia was third with six.
Sallee was one of the six who tabbed Georgia to win the SEC. He actually has the Bulldogs defeating Auburn in the SEC Championship. His reasoning is twofold: Georgia’s most glaring issues – offensive line and wide receivers – are overstated considering the defensive talent the rest of the SEC lost. Auburn gets Alabama at home and will have a quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, who should threaten teams with the pass.
“In terms of Alabama, I don’t necessarily think they’re going to have a down year,” Sallee said. “But I don’t think the gap is as big as other folks think.”
Even so, a feeling exists entering this season that the rest of the conference is once again chasing Alabama on the gridiron.
And the gap won’t be considered closed until another program can knock the mighty Crimson Tide from the SEC perch.
“Our goal is to win the SEC Championship,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “And to do that, you've got to beat Alabama.”