As often happens, Nick Saban took the seemingly benign question and remolded into one that can send a message to his team.
The question, in a sit-down with ESPN’s Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarlan, was about coaches in other conferences claiming superiority over the SEC. They played the clips for Saban to hear.
Steve Addazio, Boston College: “We’re in the ACC, the best conference in college football. That’s not even debatable any more.”
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: “I think we’ve established ourselves as the premier conference in college football.”
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: “I think there’s one conference that had a winning record versus Power Five teams – the ACC. One conference had a winning record against ranked teams – the ACC.”
Then one from the Big 10, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer: “I coached in the SEC East when that was one of the strongest in the country, and I think the Big 10 East right now is every bit as strong as I can remember the SEC East.”
Tessitore undoubtedly expected Saban to tout the success of the SEC. But we should know by now not to expect the expected from Saban.
“What does it matter? I don’t even care,” Saban said, starting to shift around in his chair as he’s getting fired up. “All these people promoting their leagues and all that. That’s great. I mean, we’ve done pretty well in the SEC through the years, won a lot of championships. We have great places, great venues, lots of attendance, lots of spirit, lots of guys getting drafted.”
The passion, the spirit, the venues, the attendance, the drafted players. Alluding to all of that, Tessitore suggested that Saban just confirmed the SEC’s superiority.
“I guess so,” Saban said. “But my biggest concern is about our team. I’m worried about our team developing.”
Call it using alternative facts, or, if that sounds too politically charged, selective facts. Here are the facts:
The ACC won 10 of 14 games against the SEC. Clemson beat Alabama in the national championship game but lost to Pitt, which was a middle of the pack ACC team, and nearly lost to N.C. State and Louisville. The ACC took home the Heisman Trophy, even though the wrong ACC player won it.
So it’s hard to argue that the SEC was better than the ACC last season.
Key words: Last season.
That doesn’t mean that the ACC has dethroned the SEC as the best conference in college football. Another fact that has been cited is the ACC’s 19-13 record against the SEC over the last three seasons combined. But that is inflated by last season’s results. The record between the conferences was 9-9 over 2014 and 2015.
That’s what makes 2017 a pivotal season. The first two weekends feature three key matchups – Alabama-Florida State, Tennessee-Georgia Tech, and Auburn-Clemson. A sweep by either conference would go a long way to strengthening the case for either one.
One thing that is not an aberration is the strength of the head coaches. The ACC is clearly superior in that regard right now with Swinney, Fisher, Mark Richt and (as much as it pains me to admit) Bobby Petrino. Who is the second-best head coach in the SEC behind Saban? Jim McElwain? Maybe Bret Bielema?
But coaches do only so much. They recruit and develop. The game is about players. The SEC is still the most athletic conference top to bottom in college football. That’s not just my opinion but that of NFL scouts. The SEC had 52 players drafted this year compared to 42 for the ACC. That included 15 players taken in the first two rounds, compared to seven for the ACC.
The most obvious exception to that is at the game’s most important position quarterback. Quarterback play in the SEC has been weak since the 2013 class of AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw.
That is where the SEC could flip the field this year. There’s still not one sure-fire great quarterback in the SEC. But there are several who have the ability to be very good. Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Ole Miss all finished last season with a true freshman starting at quarterback. Auburn and Florida have potential starters who transferred in. Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald had a breakout season last year and could end up being drafted high.
“I see a lot more great quarterbacks in our league this year,” Saban said.
Maybe three months from now, all of those coaches might be right. Maybe the ACC will prove to be superior. Then again, maybe three months from now we’ll look back on that whole notion as laughable.