College football fans know the narrative well: The SEC is the best conference in college football because it is a grind top to bottom. The recruits are the top rated. The coaches are the highest paid and the money is bigger than ever.
But while the narrative stays the same, the SEC has quietly morphed into Alabama and the Lost Boys. The Crimson Tide have blown through the SEC by an average of 24 points per game. By far the closest game, against Ole Miss, was only within a score after Chad Kelly threw a pair of miracle touchdown passes in the waning minutes to close the gap.
This might be Nick Saban’s most dominant team, so it isn’t a shock that the Crimson Tide are undefeated. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is perhaps the favorite for the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and defensive end Johnathan Allen leads one of the most disruptive defenses in the nation.
This isn’t a one-year phenomenon. In the outstandingly likely case that Alabama blows past either Florida or Tennessee in the SEC championship game (it’s already clinched the West), Alabama will become the first SEC team since 1996 to win back-to-back-to-back SEC championships. It would take a Herculean effort for any other team to win the national title.
But while Alabama has thrived, the rest of the conference has wilted. Alabama is the only SEC team in the top 14 of the College Football Playoff rankings. Suddenly, its best win is against No. 13 Southern California – a Pac-12 opponent. Every other Power Five conference has more teams in the top 14.
It would be one thing if it was talented teams beating each other up, like what has happened in the past few years. Unfortunately, the SEC doesn’t have that crutch to fall back on this season.
After jumping up to No. 9 in the country, Auburn dropped an awful loss to Georgia. Texas A&M ruined a No. 4 ranking with losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the two worst teams in the SEC West. Some will try to argue this is proof of the depth of the conference – it’s not. The bottom of the conference has lost to South Alabama, Georgia Tech and Southern Miss. Advanced analytics are calling this the worst iteration of the SEC East ever.
A few weeks ago, the SEC was talking about five of its teams having a shot at the College Football Playoff. Now, it looks like the conference won’t even get a New Year’s Six bowl bid other than the Sugar Bowl, which it is contractually guaranteed.
Granted, Saban might be the greatest college football coach of all time. However, the greatness has broken the normal structures and sent the entire conference’s balance of power into a tailspin.
Since the conference expanded to include Texas A&M and Missouri in 2012, Alabama and Georgia are the only teams to average double-digit wins per year. LSU is next, and then Texas A&M rounds out top contenders. An extremely recent Big 12 team is the fourth-best team in the conference since 2012.
Over that stretch, eight of the 14 teams in the SEC have missed at least one bowl game. That’s despite the fact that the state of Mississippi had one of the best four-year streaks in its history.
With Gary Pinkel and Mark Richt leaving their jobs last season, every SEC team has changed its head coach since Saban arrived. There have been 19 total coaching moves since the Alabama coach was hired in 2008. The inconsistency in the conference has made almost every program unpredictable.
Four different programs have hired Saban assistants in that span: Florida (Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain), South Carolina (Muschamp), Tennessee (Derek Dooley) and Georgia (Kirby Smart). LSU could make five if it can land Jimbo Fisher.
It hasn’t mattered yet. Florida is the only one of those programs to win a division title with an ex-Saban staffer. The reality is teams can’t expect to beat Alabama by trying to out-Alabama the Crimson Tide. It will never work. In fact, the only SEC teams to truly challenge Alabama the past five years – Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M – all run different systems.
This isn’t the first time that the SEC has seen a dominant program, but the lack of competition is ruining the reputation of what has historically been the proudest conference in America. College football loses something when one team is so dominant over the rest. Unless teams are willing to experiment with new ways to adapt, the rest of the SEC will have to get used to being Alabama’s punching bag.