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The SEC isn't so mighty anymore thanks to Nick Saban

Dan Wetzel
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The Southeastern Conference awards its football champion an impressive trophy that includes a running back trying to leap over a blocker and a tackler. It’s a pretty cool ode to the kind of goal-line play a Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson once made.

They might want to shelve it this year, especially if Nick Saban’s top-ranked, unbeaten Alabama defeats Florida to capture its fifth league title in six seasons. (The Tide is currently a 22-point favorite, the biggest for the SEC game in over two decades.)

Instead, they could hand out a diorama of the South, with 13 college towns laying in smoldering ruins as Saban sits on a throne in Tuscaloosa eating Little Debbie snack cakes. Maybe the rest of the league could be waving white flags.

The once mighty SEC is dead. (Well, at least for this year.)

The league consists of Alabama and a whole lot of mediocre-at-best.

What was once the nation’s deepest, most competitive conference in football is a shell of itself, a parade of the down and the defeated, so far behind the Crimson Tide that this weekend’s SEC championship game is essentially an exhibition contest. Alabama can lose and still make the playoff. Florida can win and it won’t matter. We’re a long way from when the game was a de facto national semifinal, or even the championship game (2009 No. 2 Bama beat No. 1 UF).

The No. 1 suspect for the annihilation is Saban. The 65-year-old hasn’t just dominated the competition but destroyed it. It’s not just in relation to Alabama either. Yes, the Tide has run away form the pack, winning its eight league games by an average of 23.3 points. It can happen. The stunning development is that the pack has fallen apart. No one else is any good.

Nick Saban is 65-12 in SEC play in 10 seasons at Alabama. (Getty Images)
Nick Saban is 65-12 in SEC play in 10 seasons at Alabama. (Getty Images)

Put it this way, if Alabama beats Florida Saturday then every team in the league not coached by Nick Saban will have at least four losses.

Already we have this: every team in the league not coached by Nick Saban combined to go just 5-9 against other Power 5 conference opponents (and BYU). That included last weekend’s trips behind the woodshed by Florida (31-13 loss to Florida State) and South Carolina (56-7 loss to Clemson).

The Power 5 and BYU might be a bit too easy of a cut-off though. Every team in the league not coached by Nick Saban combined to go a sorry 0-6 against the current AP top 15, a complete washout. There are but two victories against the current top 25 (Kentucky over Louisville; Tennessee over Virginia Tech).

Every team in the league not coached by Nick Saban will hit the recruiting trail in desperate need of talent, a rebuilding project (at best) in progress. Every team in the league not coached by Nick Saban will have a solid portion of its own fan base skeptical of its coach’s ability and long-term stability. Tennessee is so upset that some people want Lane Kiffin back.

Basically, every team in the league not coached by Nick Saban will be wondering when Nick Saban will just go off and retire … or return to the NFL.

About the only thing comparable is the heyday of Bear Bryant, when he lorded over Southern football. In 1979, as Bryant’s Tide went 12-0, capping a three season, 34-2, two national title run. The SEC runner-up, Georgia, finished 6-5. (Auburn, at 8-3, was the only other ranked team).

This is even more impressive now because there are 13 competitors, not nine, there are strict scholarship limits (unlike during Bryant’s day) and pretty much every single school is flush with money and commitment to win. This isn’t a region or a conference just waking up. This is the league that once owned the sport coming unglued.

Since this is a recent trend and small sample size there can be no definitive reasons why the SEC has fallen apart, or even that it will last. You can start with Saban though and the way he doesn’t just beat the other teams on the field, but in their long-term decision making.

In the past he had true peers in the league. But Steve Spurrier retired. Urban Meyer took a year off and then headed to Ohio State. Bobby Petrino wrecked his Harley in Arkansas with a blonde volleyball player riding on the back. Georgia essentially ran out Mark Richt, whose team was almost always good for 10 wins a season. The reason: he couldn’t beat Saban. LSU did the same with Les Miles, despite a national title, another BCS title game appearance and some measure of success against the Tide. Even an up-and-coming coach like James Franklin left the league to go to Penn State.

For the most part, league schools seem intent not on finding the next great coach, but the next Saban, which would be a fool’s errand. The ideal candidate appears to be angry, secretive, full of clichés and wound extremely tight. Georgia hired Kirby Smart, who promptly lobbied the state legislature to change the state’s open records laws so no one could find out what recruits they were hosting.

If that’s all you think Saban is, though, you’re missing the good stuff.

Florida and Georgia hired his former assistants and are hoping they’ll develop. Will Muschamp has played the Saban part so well he’s been hired by both Florida and South Carolina. Tennessee upped the “Process” with “brick by brick” but has basically been chasing its tail around the Smokies. LSU thought it could get a big name and wound up with one of its assistants who was once fired by Ole Miss. (Say this though, Ed Orgeron is his own unique character.

Even the coaches who have had some success against Saban aren’t in great shape. Ole Miss has beaten the Tide twice in three years but Hugh Freeze’s program is staring at a relentless NCAA infractions investigation. Texas A&M sprung an upset with Johnny Manziel but hasn’t turned the corner even with all those local recruits who followed. Gus Malzahn led Auburn to the national title game and is often pretty good, just not against Saban – three consecutive double-digit defeats.

Missouri won a couple of SEC East’s but then Gary Pinkel retired due to health concerns and a student protest threw everything in flux. Arkansas faded down the stretch this season when a big step forward was there for the taking.

Nick Saban greets Auburn coach Gus Malzahn after the Tide's 30-X12 victory. (Getty Images)
Nick Saban (right) greets Auburn coach Gus Malzahn after the Tide’s 30-12 victory. (Getty Images)

Is the problem that every other school keeps panicking and first firing the wrong people and then hiring the wrong people? If it’s not canning good head coaches then it’s the annual staff shake-up; it doesn’t seem like anyone can keep a defensive or offensive coordinator for long.

Is it Saban scaring away the region’s best potential hires? Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher is 9-1 against the SEC and turned down feelers from LSU. Tom Herman was considered college football’s hottest young coach, but he chose Texas over Baton Rouge. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney wouldn’t even consider leaving his job … unless it’s to Tuscaloosa.

Is it Alabama’s evaluation machine that sops up not just loads of five-star recruits but the five-star recruits who can really play, leaving the potential busts to everyone else? Or maybe it’s just a one-year, 13-school wide slump.

Of course, this is the kind of thing SEC fans used to howl in laughter at the Big Ten about … really, really, Purdue isn’t that bad …

It’s one thing not to beat Alabama right now. That’s understandable.

It’s another when the entire once-vaunted league can’t beat anyone else, when it’s become non-competitive. Alabama counts for just one-loss (if it’s even on the schedule), not four or five … or seven.

Florida will serve as the final SEC foil this year. They arrive with no momentum, having been shellacked once again (sixth time in seven years) by Florida State, where the Gators failed to score an offensive touchdown or convert on a single third down. Oh, and they are banged up across the roster.

“Been watching film [of Alabama],” Florida coach Jim McElwin joked Sunday night. “There’s only been a couple times so far that I’ve become violently ill.”