HOOVER – There has been rumbling in the offseason about realignment within the Southeastern Conference, centered around the idea of swapping teams from one division to the other to create more competitive and geographic balance.
So far, it’s just talk. And no one, so far, has suggested putting the University of Alabama in one division, with the other 13 teams in another.
Maybe it’s time, given the Crimson Tide’s dominance under Nick Saban, who represented Alabama at SEC Media Days on Wednesday at the Wynfrey Hotel. It was Saban’s 16th appearance and the event and his 11th as head coach at UA, with the previous ones coming when he was at LSU from 2000-04.
“I’m sure there’s nobody in this room who thought that would ever happen,” Saban said of his longevity at Alabama.
The rest of the league might wish Saban had moved along by now, but he doesn’t embrace the idea that the SEC has become an Alabama-and-everybody-else conference.
“I’m trying to think of somebody in our league that I don’t have a tremendous amount of respect for,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of parity in our league. I think it’s very challenging from a consistency standpoint.
“I think we have one of the youngest teams that we’ve ever had, so it’s going to be a real challenge for us to maintain the standard that we’ve been able to maintain.”
Saban has won four national championships at Alabama to go with one that he won at LSU. UA is coming off its third straight College Football Playoff appearance. The Crimson Tide finished 14-1 last season, with the only loss coming in the CFP National Championship Game in Tampa in a contest that came down to the final play.
“I think when you lose the mind-set is much more, ‘I’m willing to change, I want to learn, I don’t don’t want to waste the failure, what could we have done better?’ because everybody’s hurt that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play,” Saban said. “We weren’t able to finish the game the way we needed to. I think there’s a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we don’t waste the failure.”
Alabama is also coming off its third straight College Football Playoff appearance and will be seeking its fourth straight SEC championship and fifth in the last six years. UA hasn’t lost a conference game since 2015.
The Crimson Tide returns six starters on each side of the ball – including quarterback Jalen Hurts, wideout Calvin Ridley and tackle Jonah Williams on offense, and interior lineman Da’Ron Payne, linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick on defense – as well as punter JK Scott.
Off-season workouts have been promising, the coach reported.
“We’re pleased with the team’s progression this summer,” Saban said.
Alabama will be trying to replace seven players on defense who were drafted in the first four rounds by the National Football League.
“We’re going to be very young on that side of the ball, but it’s something we’re excited about as coaches.
Having Hurts back at quarterback should provide a foundation for new offensive coordiantor Brian Daboll to build upon. Saban said Hurts has progressed in the passing game since last season.
“Offensively this is the first time we’ve had a returning starter at quarterback since 2013,” Saban said, “which creates the opportunity for that guy to develop the things that he needs to do better.”
UA should have a lot of offensive firepower to complement Hurts’ talents.
“We have some good running backs and we have some good receivers and skill guys and the offensive line has developed really nicely,” Saban said.
Alabama will open its season Sept. 2 against Florida State in Atlanta in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It will be a very challenging game,” Saban said. “Florida State is built like an SEC team. They’re built like us.”
Head coach: Nick Saban
2016 record: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)
Returning starters: 13
Toughest question Saban faced: Nick, you came so close to winning the National Championship last year. Do you self-assess any differently when you come that close and you lose as opposed to when you win it and do you do it more intensely, and do you think maybe I should tweak that? How do you do that?
Saban’s reply: Well, we really try to do it the same way because whether you win or lose, we’re always trying to self-assess to see what we need to do to get better. I think when you lose, everybody’s much more — the mindset is much more I’m willing to change. I want to learn. I don’t want to waste a failure. What could we have done better? Because everybody’s hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game, but it wasn’t the last play. It’s what led up to the last play. And I think our players realize that. It takes a tremendous amount of accountability to be able to execute and sustain the execution for 60 minutes in the game. And we played against a really, really good team, which I think when you get in the playoffs, that should be what you expect. And we weren’t able to finish the game like we needed to. And I think there’s a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we won’t waste a failure.
You need to know: Alabama will have a returning starter at quarterback for the first time since 2013, in Jalen Hurts. As a true freshman, Hurts accounted for 3,734 yards (second most in school history) of total offense. His 36 touchdowns were a school record. Alabama will return 13 starters, six on offense, six on defense and one on special teams. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the big name returning on defense.
Best player quote: We definitely need that [the motivation]. When you lose a big game like that, you definitely come into the next season with a chip on your shoulder. We’re very excited to get out there. All our guys that did play in that game are really hungry to get back out there and play and show the world that we are one of the top teams in the nation. – Junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley on losing to Clemson in the National Championship game.