(This is the second in a four-part series on what some SEC coaches had to say about other SEC teams. We will focus on the title contenders.)
By Jimmy Hyams
Alabama has won five of the last 10 national championships. It has won more games in the past dozen years than any other program in college football, including Clemson.
Yet, the Tide took it on the chin in the national title game last season, falling to Clemson 44-16 as the Tigers scored the last 30 points of the game.
That should serve to motivate Saban and his team. But will that be enough to record a sixth national crown under Saban?
“Nick Saban went 14-0 (before facing Clemson) and was miserable because of all the staff changes and nobody knew how to do it the Alabama way,’’ one SEC coach said. “Now it’s going to be the Steve Sarkisian experiment (as offensive coordinator). Can he score points?
“They’ve got holes in the defense. I can see them losing 2-3 games (Saban is 103-10 the last 8 years). They lost (linebacker) Mack Wilson. They’re missing guys up front. (Defensive tackle) Raekwan Davis didn’t play that well last year.
“The team that will give them the most trouble in the West is Texas A&M.’’
Although quarterback Tua Tongaviloa put up incredible numbers, he didn’t play well against Clemson.
“I think Tua needs to humble himself,’’ one SEC coach said. “I think he did some bad things in the bowl game that cost the team because he put himself ahead of the team. He needs to understand Alabama won national championships by playing great defense and special teams and not beating itself. In the national championship game, the quarterback play was atrocious, and some would say the play calling, too.’’
Yet, said another coach: “I don’t think they’ll miss a beat on offense.’’
Most experts consider Georgia the main threat to Alabama’s SEC thrown.
The Bulldogs lost close calls to Alabama each of the past two years, last season in the SEC title game, the year before in the national championship game.
Is Georgia ready to unseat Alabama?
“After Texas beat the hell out of Georgia in the bowl game, Kirby Smart had to take a big look in the mirror,’’ one SEC coach said. “He hangs his hat on defense and Texas shredded his defense. Oklahoma did the same thing two years ago. That gives people an idea how to move the football on Georgia’s defense. Texas ran it right up their butt. Oklahoma beat them on the perimeter. And you can’t say Georgia ain’t got players.’’
One draft analyst says Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm will be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. One SEC coach isn’t so sure.
“Jake Fromm is a talented guy but I don’t think he’s one of the five best quarterbacks in Georgia history,’’ the coach said. “He makes some bad throws and he has struggled picking up different coverages. But he does have a strong arm and he’s talented. But he will miss (OC) Jim Chaney (now at Tennessee).’’
Another SEC coach had a different viewpoint.
“I really like Fromm,’’ he said. “He’s an NFL style quarterback, cerebral, can run better than people think, very accurate thrower. If you gave me one quarterback in this league to pick, he’d be the guy.’’
With success comes expectations. Can the Bulldogs handle that?
“Georgia can’t back slide,’’ one coach said. “Those fans think they’re going to win the national championship every year.’’
LSU is another team to watch. Many project to Tigers as a top 10 team, but they’ve been shutout by Alabama in two of the past three years.
“I thought Ed Orgeron did a nice job last year,’’ one coach said. “He does a good job recruiting. He’s one of them (Cajun). LSU doesn’t always do a good job evaluating, but Ed’s done a good job. Tennessee should have hired him after Lane Kiffin left (2010). He’d have done a helluva lot better than Derek Dooley or Butch Jones. If Ed had stayed at Tennessee, Tennessee would probably be the best program in the East right now.’’
That is certainly debatable, but what isn’t debatable is the progress of quarterback Joe Burrow, the Ohio State transfer who played very well the second half of last season.
“I like their quarterback, Joe Burrow,’’ one SEC coach said. “He’s very efficient, tough. (OC) Steve Ensminger does a good job putting him in situations where he can succeed.
“And (defensive coordinator) Dave Aranda is a consistently good coach – as good of a defensive coordinator as there is in the SEC. Defensively, they’re good but really by their standards, not where they want to be statistically. They’re still good but not great, and they lost some key players.’’
Two other teams that could challenge are Florida and Texas A&M.
“I think Jimbo Fisher is as good a coach as they come,’’ one SEC coach said. “The biggest difference in the program from the first to the second year is to set the culture. I have a high level of respect for the way Jimbo runs his program.
“He did a helluva job with that kid Kellon Mond, he really did. I didn’t think Mond would be that good. That son of a gun was really good.
“They’ll miss (SEC leading rusher) Trayveon Williams. But they’ll sign some running backs. Trust me when I tell you that. There are running backs all over the state of Texas.
If A&M gets Alabama at home (the game is at Kyle Field) they’ve got a chance. It will be a barn burner and an expensive ticket. I think A&M has enough talent and a good staff. Mike Elko is as good of a proven (defensive) coordinator as there is in this league.’’
Another coach wasn’t as high on Fisher: “Jimbo is a good football coach, but didn’t win the ACC every year and it’s a helluva lot easier to win the ACC than the SEC.’’
Florida went from four wins to 10 and established itself as a team to beat in the SEC.
“Dan Mullen did a helluva job with (quarterback) Feleipe Franks,’’ said one SEC coach. “Franks was very average before Dan got there. One thing about Mullen at Florida, he will have as good or better defenses than he had at Mississippi State, and he’s not playing a West schedule (in the SEC). So if he can duplicate at Florida on offense what he did at State, he’ll challenge for the East every year.
“If he can get the best athletes in the state if Florida and coach them up, he’ll win a lot of games. And he’s got a really good defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham.’’
Another coach is also high on Mullen.
“Mullen got as much out of his talent as anybody in the league (last year),’’ one coach said. “And I think Florida will be much improved. I’ve got a lot of respect for Mullen. There’s an argument he’s the best quarterback coach in all of the Southeast.’’