Summer brings hope as SEC rivals wait for Alabama football to slip back to the pack | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
Tidesports.com

Fair warning: this football column contains a tennis analogy.

Watching two great men’s stars at Wimbledon this week, there was a reminder that sometimes you can win, sometimes you can’t and sometimes it pays to be patient.

The 2020 Alabama football team was Novak Djokovic, the pinnacle of their respective sports. That doesn’t mean unbeatable, but it means nearly unbeatable: a combination of fierce competitiveness, the most raw talent in the game and vast experience on the big stage.

Djokovic won his Friday semifinal in straight sets, defeating a much younger Denis Shapovalov, who showed plenty of young talent. But at every critical juncture, Djokovic made the big play, supremely confident. He may make history against Marco Berrettini on Sunday and while Berrettini has a puncher’s chance, like Ohio State did, I’d like Djokovic’s chances. 

Then there was Roger Federer, Djokovic’s longtime rival, his equal in ability and skill and especially experience. His 2021 Wimbledon was different, a straight-set loss that showed dramatically that time takes its toll on everyone. 

Nov 28, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA;  Alabama defensive back Daniel Wright stops Auburn running back Tank Bigsby (4) at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the Iron Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via USA TODAY Sports

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No, this is not a “Nick Saban is getting older” column. He could easily be dominating the sport at age 75 because his job doesn’t include dashing across a court to smack a backhand winner and keeping that going for five grueling sets. Alabama is the preseason SEC favorite in most of the publications that have come out so far and probably will get the same nod at SEC Media Days.

The summer in Tuscaloosa has been fairly quiet, the roster replenished by a No. 1 recruiting class and a couple of instant-help transfers. On the other hand, while the roster looks good, it doesn’t have that “eight of the first 38 picks in the NFL Draft” kick to it. There are a few SEC teams that might feel their time has come: Georgia and Texas A&M certainly, perhaps LSU and Florida as well.

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Those teams aren’t looking for Alabama’s total collapse, just a weak spot in the armor that their own talent can exploit. If there’s a little less depth, there is a little more hope. The more the Crimson Tide has to rely on youth, the better chance that experienced teams have. Bryce Young might be just as good as Mac Jones was a year ago without the mind-boggling stats to show it. Having a new starter play well isn’t quite like hitting the lottery, because the element of chance is reduced significantly by recruiting the best prospects. Still, it only takes a small amount of slippage. 

Oct 17, 2020; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban removes his mask as he prepares to put on a TV headset for an interview before the game with Georgia at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Saban was cleared by the SEC to coach the game after having a positive COVID-19 test earlier in the week. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports

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In a sense, the quiet of the 2021 summer might have been, to break out a movie cliché, too quiet. The world of name, image and likeness has come upon college football, but without the revolutionary impact many expected. That impact may yet come later, and the December signing period may be chaos, but time will tell. There also hasn’t been the constant fear that coronavirus will cancel the SEC season, although North Carolina State’s unhappy fate at the College World Series and Alabama’s low vaccination rate (despite Saban’s best efforts) should at least cause caution.

Alabama might prove itself the king again in 2021. The point is that it can’t stand still, because the other challengers can at least hope that time is on their side and try to forget that Alabama might have a 20-year run and not just 12. 

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Sports columnist Cecil Hurt.

Reach Cecil Hurt at Tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt