Nick Saban spent his summer vacation in Italy with Terry, his wife. The trip was fun, productive and good for the brand as he even drew “Roll Tides!” from locals, tourists and even workers building Ferraris at the famous auto plant.
But in his annual appearance at SEC Media Days Wednesday, Saban arrived in Nashville in a most unusual role.
As an underdog. For real.
Georgia is college football’s undisputed reigning champion, in the midst of a run that could rewrite history. And LSU is the defending SEC West champ. While Alabama still may get the nod as preseason division favorite when the SEC Media Days poll is announced Thursday, it’s just not quite the same.
Start with experience. Alabama, on paper, has one of the youngest rosters in the nation. And the most notable question mark is at the most important position – quarterback – where Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner are all candidates to earn the starting job.
I think experience matters, I really do. But I also think that when you have young players who are hungry and have great energy and enthusiasm, that’s helpful to the team chemistry.
Nick Saban, head coach University of Alabama
“I don’t think anybody has actually separated themselves, yet,” Saban said, adding that “I don’t think it’s something that we are trying to rush.”
Naming a starter prematurely would go against the way Saban was raised.
“Grandma Saban used the bake the best cakes in the world, and I used to stand by the oven when I was a kid and say, ‘When is this cake going to be done?’” Saban recalled.
Grandma’s response was always succinct: “If I don’t let it go through, and take it out of the oven too soon, it will turn to mush and won’t be a really good cake.”
The message to Crimson Tide fans: patience, please.
After all, Saban has a pretty good history. Before he embarks on a quest for his eighth national title (seventh in Tuscaloosa) keep in mind that just about every Alabama team he’s fielded has been one of the youngest rosters simply because of the Tide’s success in sending players to the NFL.
“I think experience matters, I really do,” he said. “But I also think that when you have young players who are hungry and have great energy and enthusiasm, that’s helpful to the team chemistry.”
Arkansas Can’t Wait for Expansion
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman has enough to worry about in 2023 with a typically rugged SEC schedule that includes a trip to Florida, where the Razorbacks have never won, and a non-conference date with BYU.
But when asked, Pittman can’t help thinking ahead to 2024 when Texas and Oklahoma join the league. The Arkansas-Texas series dates back to Southwest Conference days. In fact, the 1969 showdown between the two may have been the original “Game of the Century,” drawing President Nixon to Fayetteville to see the game in person.
As for Oklahoma, the Sooners campus in Norman is closer to Fayetteville then the campus of any current SEC rival.
“Proximity is so good for us,” Pittman said. “Everybody’s excited. I’m excited. You know, I’m from Oklahoma and grew up a Sooner fan until I moved to eastern Oklahoma and became a Hog fan. I think it will be a big deal for the SEC – and, specifically, Texas, because of the old Southwest Conference rivalry.”
Building Chemistry at Florida
Expectations are reasonably low, at least by historical standards, at Florida. Yet the Gators have a good deal of experience returning.
More importantly, second-year coach Billy Napier said, is the chemistry the Gators have been building since the end of the 2022 season.
“Ninety percent of our team has been (together) since January,” Napier said. “We had 27 mid-year players. We did minimal work in the spring (transfer) portal.”
The exception, however, is at quarterback, where former Big Ten starter Graham Mertz is considered the potential starter when Florida visits Utah in a Thursday night season opener.
“I’ve been very impressed with Graham,” Napier said. “Graham is a 32-start player. He’s played over 2,000 snaps at a really established program in Wisconsin. We went through an extensive process to make that decision (to sign him).”
Napier said Mertz’ experience, leadership and “incredible motor and work ethic” were apparent during spring drills and summer workouts.
That not only means more assurance at the position, but competition with the veterans returning and a highly touted freshman arrival.
“We are excited about that competition. We’ll go into training camp, and we’ll make a decision when we see fit for the team.”
Graham is a 32-start player. He’s played over 2,000 snaps at a really established program in Wisconsin. We went through an extensive process to make that decision (to sign him).
Billy Napier , coach University of Floridae
Georgia’s Achilles’ Heel: Kentucky’s Defense
Everyone’s talking about Georgia, especially after the Bulldogs’ perfect run to the 2022 national title.
The Bulldogs barely broke a sweat en route to their second straight crown. But one exception was a mid-November trip to Kentucky, where Georgia escaped with a 16-6 victory. That game doesn’t need an asterisk. The last four times they’ve played, Kentucky has held Georgia well below its scoring average (16, 30, 14 and 21 points, respectively).
Just don’t remind Kentucky coach Mark Stoops how well the Wildcats defense has performed against the SEC’s current kingpin.
“Let’s not talk about them,” Stoops urged reporters. “We don’t need to aggravate them. They are the type of team (that) if you challenge them, they are going to make you look bad.”
A few minutes later, Stoops did acknowledge the great work by defensive coordinator Billy White, his staff and the players.
“But close isn’t good enough,” Stoops added. “I am proud of the way they competed on that side. Now, we need to put it all together and, bottom line, try to win the game.”