The University of Alabama begins football practice on Friday seeking to maintain while everyone else in the Southeastern Conference seeks to improve.
There is no point on talking about history after today, at least for a while. The demands of the present and the focus on the 2019 season will be all-consuming. But as Alabama seeks to defend the SEC championship it won last season — Nick Saban’s sixth at Alabama — it’s worth putting that accomplishment into perspective one last time. Because the fact is, since 2009, the league championship has become, on some ways, a secondary pursuit — or perhaps a complementary pursuit would be a better way to put it — to qualifying for and winning the season playoff.
That topic wasn’t really discussed at SEC Media Days, but it was a huge issue at Big Ten Media Days, and understandably so. The Big Ten hasn’t had a team, champion or not, make the playoff since 2016. In that season, their champion (Michigan State) did make the four-team field only to be shut out by Alabama. In 2015, league champion Penn State was leapfrogged by Ohio State on Selection Day (the Big Ten needs to take some responsibility of its own for that) and got bludgeoned again So, suddenly, the Big Ten is valuing conference titles again. Yes, Alabama got in, and won, in 2017 but not at the expense of Georgia.
This is the last time to reflect. Mercifully, perhaps, the season is coming. There will be practices to cover, developments to report. But a bit of context never hurts.
One last note for some perspective on 2019: Alabama is the defending champion. Georgia won the title in 2017. For Auburn, it’s been six years (2013) and for LSU, it has been eight years (2011). Florida has not won the SEC in 11 years — what odds would you have gotten in 2008 if you had wanted to wager that the Gators wouldn’t have another title by 2019? For Tennessee, there is probably not a player on the team that remembers the last Vols title (1998.) Most hadn’t been born yet. That’s six teams, less than half the league (admittedly Texas A&M and Missouri, the latest additions, can only be judged on their tenures.) But that is the league’s core, six teams allowing for debate on whether Tennessee still has a spot among the six. To find another program, you have to go back to Ole Miss in 1963, prior to integration. That’s 56 years ago.
The point is that half the league, or more than half, hasn’t won one single SEC championship in the past 55 years, despite competing and trying and spending. That makes it a worthy goal in and of itself.
Any wise person would probably take the five teams of recent title vintage — Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and LSU against the field. Maybe a Texas A&M breaks through, or a Missouri. The point isn’t to rehash history that most people know, even if they don’t think about it much.
Instead, it’s important to note just where the bar is set for 2019 — automatically higher than most of Alabama’s conference brethren have reached in 50-plus years — and to understand that there is pressure, not just pressure to perform on game day a month from now but pressure that affects every single practice, every meeting between today and the kickoff, pressure that Nick Saban has to manage every single day because the wolves are waiting at the door.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225