By RALPH D. RUSSO
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — There is no end in sight, not for Alabama or the Southeastern Conference.
The Crimson Tide made it two straight national championships and three in four years on Monday night. It can be argued that it’s the greatest run in college football history, but as with so many things in college football, that’s difficult to quantify. Suffice to say, if you’re putting together a short list, what the Tide has done under coach Nick Saban has a spot on it.
With its 42-14 dismantling of Notre Dame at Sun Life Stadium, the Crimson Tide also put another notch in the Southeastern Conference’s belt. The conference of college football has won seven straight titles now, almost half of them by Alabama.
“The fact that a conference can win seven national championships in football in a row, and with four different teams, is extraordinary,” Commissioner Mike Slive said Monday. “It’s something you could never predict or anticipate no matter what you were thinking about.”
In the final Associated Press Top 25, released in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, five of the first 10 teams were from the SEC. That had never happened before, so yet another first for the league that seems to be playing a different game — at least at the very top of the league — than everybody else.
Notre Dame, a fine team that was clearly a year ahead of schedule and the beneficiary of some good fortune this season, looked so outclassed by the Tide it was hard not to wonder: “What’s the point?” Just hand out the crystal football after the SEC title game in Atlanta.
Maybe Oregon would have given the Tide a better run. Throughout this era of SEC domination, the Ducks came closest to breaking the streak, losing to Auburn on a last-play field goal after the 2010 season. If a poll was taken of people who follow college football closely this season, not those starry-eyed over the big name brands, Ducks-Tide was probably the matchup most wanted to see in the title game.
But Oregon didn’t get a second chance after a bad week against Stanford the way Alabama did after playing the Aggies, and Notre Dame, even with all of its great escapes, was deserving of the spot.
The fact is though, when Alabama got to Miami, it had already seen better teams than — or at the very least teams as good as — the Fighting Irish.
Georgia was 5 yards away from beating the Tide in the SEC championship game. LSU had the Tide down late and couldn’t close Alabama out in Death Valley.
A week after beating the Tigers in Baton Rouge, La.,Texas A&M, the SEC’s newest heavyweight, rolled into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and beat the Tide by five points behind Johnny Manziel, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Saban said Monday morning, when asked about whether playing in the SEC gives the team that arrives at the national championship game an edge.
“So if you’re playing those teams … those kinds of games, that kind of competition, playing against sort of the best, obviously helps you play another good team when you play in a game like this.
“And I don’t even think it’s just those teams, I think it’s the fact that there’s a lot of teams in our division that we had very difficult games with. So it’s almost every game that you play in the SEC is a game that you could lose, and you have to be very well prepared for and you have to sort of play with a consistency. You can’t play up and down, or you’re going to have problems. And I think all those things really help the consistency and the players to understand and appreciate what it takes to be successful.”
The second half of Saban’s answer is more SEC spin than reality, and it’s the reason there is such a thing as SEC fatigue. Auburn was terrible and Arkansas wasn’t much better. Kentucky was bad. Tennessee and Missouri, below average. Mississippi State was over-ranked most of the season and Mississippi was improved, but did give up 70 to Texas at home.
The SEC grind gets overrated. With expansion, the top teams are less likely to play each other. Alabama did not play Florida or South Carolina from the East Division. And by playing eight conference games instead of nine, the way the Big 12 and Pac-12 do, they can pad their schedules with enough soft spots and breaks to give their teams a break from the week-to-week pounding.
The SEC hasn’t cornered the market on selective scheduling, but its programs are good at it.
Alabama probably had more true walkovers than Notre Dame, but the closest the Irish came to playing anyone like Georgia, LSU or Texas A&M was its game at Oklahoma, and the Sooners lost the Cotton Bowl 41-13 to Johnny Football and the Aggies.
The Irish were exposed by a level of athleticism, skill and depth that only a handful or so teams in the country can come close to, and most of those teams play in the SEC.
Maybe Urban Meyer can build a team at Ohio State that can match the SEC’s best. Florida State is showing signs of being able to be a team like that. Maybe, Clemson? Southern California has the resources, but who knows what direction the Trojans are headed? Oklahoma and Texas have fallen off, but always have the potential to do big things. Brian Kelly wants us to believe this year Notre Dame took a huge step toward being a team that can compete on that level.
But right now they are all chasing and the gap doesn’t seem to be narrowing.