Alabama cruised to a 13-0 record and the SEC title this year. The Crimson Tide are huge favorites to win the College Football Playoff, for a fifth national title in eight seasons. Nick Saban’s “dynasty” looks untouchable. Though, doomsayers doubtless will emerge from the rocks this offseason when Alabama must replace starters.
Part and parcel to the Crimson Tide’s dominance in 2016 was the rest of the SEC being really underwhelming. The conference could not produce a viable challenge for Alabama.
College football goes through cycles. Conferences have down years. But, there seems to be a clear reason the SEC appears stagnant right now: coaching.
The Big Ten, once purported to be in terminal decline, is the conference du jour. Coaches are maxing out schools’ potentials. Four B1G teams finished in the top eight of the playoff committee rankings.
Urban Meyer is the Big Ten’s “Nick Saban.” But, there is also Jim Harbaugh bringing Michigan back. James Franklin rediscovered his mojo at Penn State. Paul Chryst has more than held serve at Wisconsin. Michigan State was in the playoff last year. Iowa went undefeated during the 2015 regular season.
Those other first and second-tier powers are not materializing in the SEC. Take a look through the programs that should be challenging Alabama. Major powers have been caught in malaises of their own making.
Georgia endured the disappointing end of the Mark Richt era. Finally ripping off that band-aid, Georgia eschewed Tom Herman, Justin Fuente, and others to hire their man, Alabama assistant Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs got worse during Smart’s first season. The Tide defense got better.
LSU underperformed under Les Miles. The Tigers fired him four games into the season. Miles was a charismatic, player-friendly recruiter and CEO who didn’t offer much expertise on Saturdays. He has now been replaced by Ed Orgeron, a charismatic, player-friendly recruiter and CEO who doesn’t offer much expertise on Saturdays.
Orgeron’s last extended head coaching gig was at Ole Miss, where he went 3-21 in the SEC. The argument for him is who he can bring in to do the actual coaching. One could argue Purdue hired a more exciting coach with a better track record.
Jim McElwain is doing yeoman service with Florida. He’s won the SEC East twice. But, he’s still clawing the offense out of the deep crater Will Muschamp left behind. Maybe he’ll find a quarterback, someday.
Other powers remain stuck in the same mediocre loops, with coaches doing just enough to not get fired. Texas A&M is set for another year with Kevin Sumlin on the hot seat. Spoiler: they will start 5-0 next year, get bumped up to the Top 10, and fail dismally in late October and November.
Forces aligned for Butch Jones’ Tennessee to win the SEC East this year and give Alabama a scare. Neither happened. The Vols missed out on a Sugar Bowl invite because they could not beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Auburn, perhaps, came closest to competing with Alabama in 2016. The Tigers had the defense. They were a dynamic quarterback and top-end tailback away. They were still an 8-4 team that could not score a touchdown against the Tide.
One could argue the SEC’s two best coaches except Nick Saban at building programs and at getting production from the talent on hand are at Arkansas and Mississippi State. Dan Mullen got Mississippi State to No. 1, his QB is making the Dallas Cowboys great again, and he didn’t get a look from Georgia or LSU?
The Big Ten could have a maxed-out Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in the same division. The ACC has Jimbo Fisher at FSU, Dabo at Clemson, and Virginia Tech trending upward. Tom Herman signing on at Texas could revitalize the Big 12. The Pac 12 will have USC, Washington, and a deep pool of teams that could step into the fray behind them. Those conferences, unlike the SEC, seem to have an interesting if not bright future.
Narratives will change during the offseason. Every SEC program recruits well. Some paper power will be flush with top recruits and returning starters. The media needs to talk about something for eight months.
But, right now, it does not appear as though any SEC program has a serious chance at taking on Alabama. That’s on the other schools and their hiring decisions, not Nick Saban.