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VOL. 132 | NO. 15 | Friday, January 20, 2017

Saban Dominance Bad for SEC? Not Buying It

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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I keep reading that Nick Saban is ruining SEC football because his Alabama program is so dominant.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban and running back Bo Scarbrough accept the Peach Bowl trophy after Alabama’s 24-7 win against Washington, which sent the Crimson Tide to the national championship game with Clemson. Clemson took the title 34-31 on a last-second (literally) touchdown pass.

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

And I just don’t get it.

The misguided Saban-as-Satan logic goes this way:

Saban’s teams overwhelm the conference competition to the point that the other 13 programs quickly grow tired of not being able to match up and fans cry for change. That leads to a destabilization of the conference with a constant reshuffling of coaches. 

The result: total turmoil.

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports opined that Saban “hasn’t just dominated the competition but destroyed it.” A writer for the SEC Country website suggested the conference “has quietly morphed into Alabama and the Lost Boys.”

“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,” Wetzel wrote.

In fairness, I must note that every other SEC program has changed head coaches since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007.

That point is at the heart of the argument that Saban is ruining the league because of his success. Some believe the administrations at 13 other schools have a quick trigger when it comes to firing football coaches because everyone is so envious of Saban’s record at Alabama.

There you have it. In the minds of some, Saban has so completely dominated things to the point that the rest of the SEC is in utter disarray. Accordingly, it is up to a program like Clemson to do what no one else can: Beat Alabama.

Sorry, but I’m not buying it. They say a rising tide raises all ships. I don’t see why a rising Crimson Tide shouldn’t raise the other 13 SEC programs.

While Saban’s recent SEC track record is extraordinary by historical standards, let’s not pretend that this conference hasn’t seen its share of dominance by one program – and one coach – in the past.  

In his heyday, Bear Bryant ruled the SEC. 

In 1979, Bryant’s Alabama team went 12-0 to cap a three-year stretch in which the Tide went 34-2 and won two national championships. Back then, no one wondered if Bryant was ruining SEC football. Instead, other programs sought ways to compete.

The same was true when Steve Spurrier went on his remarkable run at Florida in the ’90s with four consecutive SEC titles (1993-96), plus the national championship in ’96. No one threw in the towel and complained there was no way the rest of the conference could catch up. 

Instead, teams like Tennessee and others figured out counterpunches to Spurrier’s speed-kills approach to the game.

Urban Meyer had things going pretty good at Florida with national championships in 2006 and ’08. But I don’t recall white flags being waved elsewhere in the SEC East.

Sure, there has been considerable coaching turnover in the SEC since Saban hit town 10 seasons ago. But let’s not get carried away.

Tennessee, for example, didn’t fire Phillip Fulmer and Derek Dooley because neither could beat Saban. The program was in decline during Fulmer’s final years, and it was time for a change.

Granted, Dooley lost all three games to his former boss by 31 points, but he also lost to a Kentucky team quarterbacked by a backup wide receiver.

Did Mark Richt and Georgia part ways because Richt couldn’t beat Saban? Hardly. Due to the SEC’s schedule rotation, the Dawgs only played Alabama three times during Richt’s tenure. One of Richt’s most memorable games was a 32-28 loss to eventual national champion Alabama in the SEC Championship in 2012.

What about Les Miles? He had a measure of success in head-to-head matchups with Saban. He also claimed one national championship and played for another. His demise at LSU can be blamed on a number of factors other than the presence of Saban elsewhere in the division.

Sure, every program and its fans wish they had Alabama’s record over the last decade. Who wouldn’t? But to suggest that Saban has single-handedly undermined SEC football because of his success is silly.

There is no question there has been a Sabanization of the SEC. This always has been a follow-the-leader conference. If one program is dominating the competition, all others take notice. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

That’s why four SEC schools have hired Saban disciples in an attempt to at least approach his success – Florida (Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain), Tennessee (Dooley), South Carolina (Muschamp) and Georgia (Kirby Smart).

I would go the other direction. Just because someone worked for Saban, that doesn’t mean he is Saban. What you’re getting is Saban Light. Maybe you should try hiring the anti-Saban.

To that point, it is fair to wonder if the presence of Saban scares off some potential hires at SEC programs. Jimbo Fisher of Florida State, a one-time Saban assistant, could have had the LSU job but deferred. But was that due to Saban? No, I suspect Fisher looked around and realized he’s got it pretty good in Tallahassee.

A couple of months ago, Tom Herman was considered a rising coaching star. He, too, was in play at LSU, but instead chose Texas. Was he ducking Saban? Maybe. But with all due respect to LSU, the Texas program is one of college football’s crown jewels. If you can cope with the politics inherent to that job, the world is at your feet.

As for other recent goings-on in the SEC, I contend the conference – at least the schools in the conference not located in Tuscaloosa – just went through a slump. While I’m not saying the Crimson Tide is going to fall back into the pack in 2017, I do believe other programs are going to close the gap.

In particular, it’s time for the SEC East to cycle up. As Smart settles in at Georgia, look for the Dawgs to regain market status in the division. If Florida can get its quarterback situation in order, the Gators will be a factor. Don’t be surprised if Butch Jones responds in a positive way to the pressure at Tennessee.

Beyond that, look for SEC teams to study how Clemson attacked Alabama on both sides of the ball in the national championship game. 

Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to have the athleticism on that Clemson roster. It was one of the few times over the last handful of seasons that the Crimson Tide has met its match in overall talent.

There is no question Alabama remains the gold standard in the SEC. It’s going to stay that way as long as Saban is around.

But history tells us that the rest of the SEC is not going to give up without a fight. 

Look for that fight to be ratcheted up a notch in 2017.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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