Can we just cut to the chase here? I realize there are no certainties in life other than the Great Beyond and the Taxman, and I realize there are sure as hell no certainties in college football – a sport where defeat has long been seized from the jaws of victory in ways that feel like surrealistic fever dreams – but I’m sitting here racking my brain, and I cannot fathom any possible scenario in which Florida beats Alabama in the SEC Championship game on Saturday.
Alabama is currently ranked second in the College Football Playoff poll. The only reason Alabama isn’t ranked first is because the Crimson Tide lost to Ole Miss back in September. Then they retooled and blew through the remainder of their schedule with a defense so potent that it might be one of the best ever at a university where transcendent defenses have stacked up historically like Ryan Adams LPs. They have one of three best running backs in the country, a retro-molded workhorse who toted the rock something like 67 times last week during the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and it took them a little while but they’ve found a quarterback who fits the Alabama mold, in that he manages to avoid the sort of egregious errors that tend to muss up Nick Saban’s hair.
This is incredible for many reasons, the first of which is that Alabama appeared vulnerable heading into this season, having lost to Ohio State in last year’s College Football Playoff, having no established quarterback on their roster, having to get through one of the most difficult schedules in the country. This was the year you thought Alabama might actually lose a second game in the regular season; this was the year you thought Saban might begin to show a vulnerable side.
Instead, Alabama is so goddamned Alabama this season that it almost feels like we’re watching the living embodiment of a cliché. Saban is still intense and manipulative and weird: This week at a press conference, he exhorted reporters to pose their questions to a bottle of caramel-colored sugar water. (A couple of weeks earlier, he noted that then-FCS school Georgia Southern had, in 2011, utilized its option offense to run “through our ass like shit through a tin horn, man.”) And nine seasons into Saban’s tenure, it is becoming clearer and clearer that Alabama has so subsumed the psyche of the Southeastern Conference that everyone wants a piece of that cliché, in one way or another.
If this was not already abundantly clear, it has become so in recent weeks, when Georgia fired Mark Richt after a 9-3 season in part because he couldn’t seem to defeat Alabama when it mattered; it became inherently obvious when LSU’s boosters nearly gathered enough momentum to pay off Les Miles to get out of town merely because he couldn’t match up to Alabama’s perennial success. But it goes beyond that: This week, Saban lost wunderkind defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who according to multiple reports will soon become the head coach at the University of Georgia.
This is might wind up being a brilliant move for Georgia, given that Smart is a few weeks short of his 40th birthday, given that he graduated from Georgia with a degree in finance and was a four-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll, given that he once coached running backs at Georgia before moving over to coach on defense. I have no doubt that Smart is…smart, but A) As intelligent as Smart may be, he was also working with some of the best raw talent in the country, year after year, and B) Smart is now going to face the same issue that everyone else in the SEC does, which is that Saban has so built up expectations that it’s nearly impossible to live up to them.
The simple thing to do in the wake of this Alabama hegemony would be to condemn Saban’s corporate mentality, his bland references to that thing he refers to as “The Process.” The simple thing to do here would be to complain that Alabama is homogenizing the sport. But there’s something fascinating about the sort of dynastic empire that Saban has created; it feels so utterly American in its enormousness, and in the way it has inspired competitors to somehow create a more alluring version of Saban’s Coca-Cola. Which is what we’ll see on Saturday, when Florida – coached by former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain – falls to a superior Alabama team. Someday, this dynasty may wind up being toppled by itself. But not yet.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb