HOOVER, Ala. — LSU is the logical challenger to Alabama’s supremacy in the SEC West, while Florida and Georgia are the best hopes to deliver an uprising out of the East, so Ed Orgeron, Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart were all asked the same question at SEC Media Days: How do you catch the Crimson Tide?
“That’s a common question at this event,” said Smart, who should know better than anyone as Nick Saban’s former 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 have something special — and I think every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up in regards to that.”
You think? Alabama just signed the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class (per 247Sports’ composite) for the seventh consecutive season under Saban. LSU, Auburn and Georgia have each signed a top-10 class every February for the last four years and it so far has not been enough.
But is the gap closing?
LSU signed groups ranked No. 2 (twice), No. 5 and No. 7 since 2014, and they played Alabama to a scoreless draw through three quarters in Baton Rouge last fall before losing 10-0 to the eventual national runners-up. Thus, Orgeron said, “I don’t know if it’s that big of a gap.”
“I think the way to beat Alabama is recruit on their level … and coach your team very well and get your team ready to play,” he continued. “Again, last year, we weren’t that far off.”
But everyone else was — and has been. The Crimson Tide’s dominance borders on the absurd, especially given the SEC’s reputation as the most brutal conference in college football. There has been some brutality.
Alabama has only two fewer West Division titles (six) than league losses (eight) in the last nine seasons. The Crimson Tide have won five SEC Championship Games in that span and terrorized the East with a 27-2 record against the other side, including an 18-game winning streak that dates back to 2010.
Closing the gap? Bama outscored conference opponents by an average of 18.2 points per game the last three years — and by a whopping 24.9 last season.
“I don’t know the gap itself,” said McElwain, former Tide offensive coordinator under Saban. “I do understand this: They are right now at the top and it’s up to the rest of us to go get them.”
Bless Derek Mason’s heart, he thought that meant Vanderbilt. The Commodores, who will be a problem for most everyone in the East this season and earned the right to puff out their chests after upsetting Georgia and Tennessee last fall, open SEC play against Alabama on Sept. 23.
“There’s nobody right now that’s doing it better,” Mason said, offering plenty of platitudes about Saban and his juggernaut before continuing: “But here’s what I’d tell you: I don’t fear anybody.”
Likewise, I’m not walking around scared of a trash compactor. Should I fall into one, though, it will crush me. The secret to slaying the Alabama beast is understanding why it has become such an efficient, unforgiving, unrelenting killing machine.
Having lived in the belly of that beast, McElwain (who apparently had his sense of humor surgically removed to be more like Saban) shared Tuesday what Alabama has done better than the rest: collect spare parts and concoct backup plans.
“Certain things happen that you don’t have control over,” the Gators coach said, “and yet what you hope happens is you’ve taken care of a lot of the details along the way, so that when something comes up, you can still be successful.”
Sort of like Alabama winning each of its three consecutive SEC titles with a different starting quarterback, or replacing a parade of players to the NFL every year with a new wave that’s just as good or better.
Saban had 10 players drafted this spring but enters 2017 with the SEC’s No. 1-ranked unit (per Phil Steele) at quarterback, running back, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and defensive back. Rinse, repeat and secure those chinstraps.
“I think each [team] is getting closer, and we’d like to see that gap closed through recruiting,” Smart said, “but you can only do that through hard work and grinding, and that’s what we continue to do in Athens.”