Like the old saying goes, it’s not football season until Steve Spurrier pours himself a fountain drink at an Arby’s. And while it may or may not be true that this is actually a scene pulled directly from Go Set a Watchman, it is true that the first distant whiff of September emanated from suburban Hoover, Alabama this week, where the Southeastern Conference held its annual Media Days/self-congratulatory bacchanal, an event that kicked off with the league’s new commissioner literally quoting Bob Dylan.
No joke: Greg Sankey, the second consecutive native New Yorker to run the league that aligns more closely with Southern identity than any other sporting entity not named NASCAR, got up on the first day of this four-day mélange of Yeezy shoes and borderline eroticism and quoted “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” And while some of this was in reference to the ongoing and long overdue marginalization of the Confederate flag (a notion that Spurrier and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, among others, expressed support for) it was also an attempt to reassert the supremacy of a league that long dominated college football but it is now being challenged on all fronts.
For seven consecutive years between 2006 and 2012, when the SEC was winning every available national championship under former commissioner Mike Slive, there was little question about the league’s hegemony over the sport. Even now, the South is the densest recruiting territory in America, as evidenced by some Northern schools continued attempts to penetrate it; but in the past couple of seasons, following Auburn’s loss to Florida State in the final BCS Championship game and Alabama’s loss to Ohio State in the first College Football Playoff, the league itself has shed a certain amount of mojo, which is of great concern in the South, given how the league’s run of success became such an overweening source of geographical pride.
Earlier this week, Alabama coach Nick Saban complained that the deadline mandating that college players declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft amid playoff preparations threw off his team’s ability to focus, which felt like the sort of feeble excuse that Saban has inexplicably clung to the past couple of seasons, when his team has underachieved in the postseason. “Poor Nick Saban,” wrote Yahoo columnist Pat Forde. “The sport of football keeps conspiring against him.”
There is, of course, an unavoidable amount of schadenfreude in all of this, largely because college football is such a regionalized pastime, and also because the Big Ten, long a punching bag, is suddenly in the midst of a resurgence, and because the Pac-12, overstuffed with innovative head coaches, is now the most progressive league in the country. Still, it’s also an overstatement to declare that either of those leagues (or the Big 12, or ACC) can rival the sheer talent of the SEC, and particularly the SEC West. How good is the SEC West? Literally every one of the seven teams in the division got at least two first-place votes in the preseason media poll; it is not difficult to imagine any of those teams making the four-team playoff, and it is not difficult to imagine any of those teams (including Alabama, burdened with the toughest schedule in the country this fall) finishing seventh.
Fortunately, the SEC is still replete with characters as well, including Spurrier, who turned 70 this offseason and considered retirement after a 7-6 campaign but instead returned – Praise the Lord – and began the annual summer ritual of trolling his rivals; Bret Bielema, the portly Arkansas coach, who seems to have embraced Spurrier’s don’t-give-a shit mentality while attempting to construct an overly physical version of Wisconsin South; and LSU’s Les Miles, who remains the goofball to end all goofballs, but may once again have a team good enough to prove him a mad genius once more.
Still, there was a creeping sense of concern underlying all the brashness in Alabama, and nowhere was that more evident than in the fact that two Ohio State fans managed to sneak in to the hotel ballroom where Media Day was being held and troll the Crimson Tide supporters who show up in weirder disguises each year. “Nick Saban – they say to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man,” one of the Ohio State fans boasted. “Well, we beat the man. Urban Meyer beat the man. Urban Meyer beat the legend, the myth,” and the question now is whether that myth – and whether the myth of Southern football – has been fully punctured.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb