Can the rest of the SEC close the gap on Alabama?

ATLANTA—In March of 2007, not long after Nick Saban came to Alabama as head coach, we met in his office. He was blunt in his assessment of what needed to be done to get the Crimson Tide where they wanted to go.

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“Everybody is talking about winning a national championship but we haven’t done anything to put us on a path to even thinking about that,” he said. “There have been too many voices speaking for Alabama football. That’s about to change. ”

I thought about those words in the hours that followed Alabama’s incredible 26-23 overtime win over Georgia in Monday night’s CFP national championship game. The victory gave Saban and Alabama five national championships (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017) in a nine-year span. That is simply not supposed to happen in the era of 85 scholarships where everybody in the Power Five conferences has money to build great facilities and recruit the world looking for the best possible talent.

But Alabama and Saban have done it with a consistency unseen in the BCS/CFP era, which begin in 1998. Beginning with Saban’s second season at Alabama (2008), the Crimson Tide has been in the national championship discussion every week save a couple in 2010, when Alabama posted its “worst” season (10-3) in that stretch.

And, based on what we saw Monday night, we can pretty much guarantee that Alabama will be your preseason No. 1 for 2018. The Crimson Tide won the game with a freshman quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa), got a great second-half performance from a freshman running back (Najee Harris), saw the winning touchdown caught by a freshman wide receiver, (DeVonta Smith), and had a freshman left tackle (Alex Leatherwood) come into the game late and do some yeoman’s work.

With that kind of talent returning, it’s hard to see Saban stepping away from this anytime soon. He is a fit 66 years old and likes the challenge of building a new team every year. He also likes the challenge of getting a new set of players to buy into his “process.”

Now having said all that, let me say this: Alabama has been the dominant program in the SEC for the past 10 years, but Saban’s job is about to get a lot tougher. Specifically:

**--Georgia’s Kirby Smart, while devastated with Monday night’s loss to his mentor, is building a program for the long haul. The second signing period comes in February, but right now Georgia has the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, which includes No. 1 quarterback Justin Fields. Yes, Georgia will lose a ton of seniors, including running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. But, as Smart said after the game: “we’re not going anywhere.”

**--Texas A&M pulled out its considerable wallet to pay Jimbo Fisher $7.5 million a year for the next 10 years. Fisher is one of the best developers of quarterbacks I’ve ever seen and he has two good ones already on campus in Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel. Fisher also grabbed Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko at $2 million per year.

**--There is no doubt in my mind that Florida is going to get better in a hurry under new coach Dan Mullen. The Gators have struggled on offense since Urban Meyer left after the 2010 season and Mullen, who has tutored Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, and Dak Prescott, should be able to fix that.

**--Ditto for Tennessee, which hired Saban’s defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt as its new head coach. While former Volunteers’ coach Butch Jones caught a lot of heat in his five years in Gainesville, he and his staff did recruit pretty well.

**--Arkansas will move the ball better under new coach Chad Morris.

**--LSU kept Dave Aranda as its new defensive coordinator after Jimbo Fisher had to pry him away. The school gave him 2.5 million reasons to stay.

**--South Carolina won nine games last season and has quarterback Jake Bentley returning for his third season. New OC Bryan McClendon should juice up that unit.

**--Mississippi State has Nick Fitzgerald coming back as quarterback and I don’t think the Bulldogs miss a beat under new coach Joe Moorhead.

**--Auburn, the only team to beat both Alabama and Georgia this season, loses four starters on the offensive line. But with quarterback Jarrett Stidham returning with a very good group of wide receivers, Auburn will again be a tough out.

The point? While Alabama has separated itself from the rest of the SEC the past 10 seasons, that gap may be starting to close. We'll see.