As Alabama prepares to go after a fourth straight SEC championship and its fifth in six years -- the Tide no longer struggle to win the SEC West -- many lines of argument exist on "The Saban Question."
That query more or less amounts to this: "Why has Nick Saban so utterly and completely dominated the SEC?"
Plenty of answers contain measures of truth. Saban recruits better -- and deeper. The quality of coaching elsewhere in the league has declined. The East is a below-average division. Those are all valid and reasonable responses to The Saban Monster who towers over the rest of the league.
Sure, maybe Auburn will break through this season and stop Bama's run, but it's well worth recalling that in 2013, when the Tigers became the only non-Bama SEC champion of the past five years, they needed both the Kick Six and a terrible performance from the Tide's kicking game. If just one of several late-stage plays had gone Bama's way in the 2013 Iron Bowl, we would be looking at five straight SEC titles for the Tide, with a chance for six this December in Atlanta.
It is clear that the SEC will have a hard time dislodging Saban from his perch, but it seems just as important to note that while it will always be difficult to handle the Alabama colossus, the SEC has done a very poor job of offering significant resistance... except for Hugh Freeze, who is now gone because he was an inept cheater and a hypocrite at Ole Miss.
The fact that Freeze did trouble Saban -- and (one could argue) should have won a third straight game against Alabama last year -- offers in many ways the cornerstone of the argument that the other 12 non-Bama teams in the SEC have generally failed to find the right approach against Saban. Forget the final result for a moment; SEC teams generally aren't using the right tactics.
In a very real way, LSU's 9-6 win over Alabama in 2011 could have led the whole SEC down the wrong path. That game was 1970s SEC football in the vein of Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley. It was hard to blame Les Miles at the time for thinking he could beat Bama "the old-fashioned way." Yet, any recollection of that game has to account for the fact that Bama's kicking-game woes hurt the Tide in a game where their offense was generally more effective than a sputtering LSU attack. That game also included an inversion of "Touchdown Seahawks," a bad call on a "simultaneous possession" play in which Eric Reid was ruled to have intercepted a pass. In reality, he took the ball away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams only after both men landed on the ground with possession of the ball. "Touchdown Seahawks" erroneously awarded a catch to an offensive player under the simultaneous possession rule. This call in LSU-Bama erroneously refused to apply the simultaneous possession principle.
At any rate, LSU got away with a poor offensive performance.
One can say the Tigers have been paying the price for not evolving ever since that game.
The furor and tumult surrounding Les Miles in late 2015 and early 2016 was hilarious in the sense that Miles himself was not the problem -- not directly. Miles did bear responsibility for his situation, but the person most directly responsible for LSU's decline was offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. LSU continuously tried to beat Alabama with a conservative offensive game plan, trusting the Bayou Bengals' defense. While LSU came close in home games against Bama, the measure of needed offense never arrived.
No SEC program since the Urban Meyer Florida Gators has been able to recruit at or near Bama's level better than LSU, and so for that reason, LSU has consistently been the SEC team best positioned to counter Saban. Yet, the LSU story this decade is defined by the simple point that the Tigers -- for all the skill position talent they recruit -- have shown little to no imagination against Saban.
They wanted to beat Saban the old-fashioned way.
That, in short, is the biggest miscalculation SEC teams and offensive coordinators have made over the past several years.
It is no accident that when Texas A&M beat Alabama in 2012, it had a strong offensive line recruited by Mike Sherman... and an offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, who was unafraid to take chances down the field.
It is no accident that when Auburn (albeit with a lot of help) beat Bama in 2013, Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee unveiled the tricky and imaginative "pop pass" late in the fourth quarter to tie the game, setting up the Kick Six.
It is no accident that Freeze's aggressive offensive gameplan bore so much fruit against Alabama.
It should be beyond obvious by now: Beating Bama has to come from hitting shots downfield. (Steve Spurrier, Stephen Garcia and South Carolina did this in 2010.) Good luck running the ball for most of a 15-play, 80-yard, seven-minute drive against the Tide. Betcha that won't happen. Instead, why not sling the pill down the field and get 40 yards in 10 seconds? Bama will not be beaten in a war of muscle and attrition, but through skill -- the kind of skill Deshaun Watson and Clemson demonstrated last January.
Yet, do Florida and Georgia have both the approach AND the skill needed to beat Saban? Florida might be a little more clever than Georgia, but it seems to lack the high-end skill players. Georgia clearly has the skill players, but Jim Chaney has not merited much trust as UGA's offensive coordinator.
It will never be easy to beat Nick Saban, yes, but SEC teams, head coaches, and offensive coordinators remain largely behind the curve in terms of using the right approach to counter his defenses. Maybe 2017 will offer an epiphanic encounter which will change the way this conference attacks its behemoth program and its best coach.