Another Year Of Tough SEC West Games

Ever since the news of Doug Layton’s death last week, I have been thinking often of the loss to his family and to the Alabama family and, I report unabashedly, to myself. There was a tremendous turnout for his funeral – “Celebration of his life,” as it was aptly named – Monday.

Former star Alabama players, including Major Ogilvie and Wendell Hudson, and popular coaches, Wimp Sanderson and Bill Oliver, and many of his broadcast brethren (Jerry Duncan, who would prefer to be listed as a star player, and Paul Kennedy and Tom Roberts) and on and on and on.

And now, as Doug would say, life goes on. Actually, he would say something quite witty, but you get the idea.

In proceeding, I return to what I revealed in a story about Doug last week, perhaps my favorite line from his broadcast days. It came during a basketball game. He said, “As you know, it is my policy never to criticize an official’s call. If ever I were to break that policy, however, it would be right now.”

To paraphrase:

“It is my policy to never forgive the scheduling of football games by Alabama against the likes of Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Charleston Southern. If ever I were to soften on that policy, however, it would be this season.” Those three are uninteresting cupcakes, but the rest of the 2015 Alabama football schedule is a horror.

At Southeastern Conference Media Days, there was talk of “balance” in the SEC Western Division. Balance is only a part of it. The West is tough, tough, tough.

When journalists voted in a preseason poll at SEC Media Days, all seven Western Division teams received votes to win the championship. In fact, the one and two finishers for the championship were Auburn (96 votes) and Alabama (80). A total of 10 teams received votes to win the SEC title this year and Bama plays eight of them. Obviously, the Tide cannot play itself. The lone team that Alabama will not play received a lone vote -- one vote for Florida, which isn’t on the Tide schedule.

Alabama plays its six opponents in the Western Division – Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. The Tide also plays the two teams selected to finish in the top two in the SEC East, at Georgia and Tennessee.

And just to make things interesting before the start of conference play, Alabama will meet Wisconsin – runner up in the Big 10 last year to national champion Ohio State – on Sept. 5 in the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington.

Understandably, reasonable people believe that Alabama will not go through its schedule unscathed. Some people, reasonable and otherwise, suggest that the Crimson Tide of Coach Nick Saban, with three national championships in the last six years, is “slipping,” and those people probably count on this year’s schedule to validate the supposition.

The occasional detractor of the SEC, and particularly of the SEC West, is on thin ice. At one point late last season there were four SEC West teams ranked in the nation’s top five – Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Auburn. The “Yeah, but…” is that those four teams – in fact, five of seven SEC West teams – lost their bowl games. But, Dude, they were IN bowl games, including Alabama being in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Expect all seven SEC West teams and a few from the East to get votes in the upcoming pre-season college football national top 20 polls.

Saban didn’t limit the discussion to the SEC West when he was asked about the balance in the division at SEC Media Days last week. He said as a conference, “top to bottom, it is one of the best.” He attributes it to “a lot of good coaches” doing great jobs in recruiting and/or development of players.

“I don’t really have an explanation for it,” he said of the dominance of the SEC Western Division. “I know there are a lot of good football players and a lot of good football coaches.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who have accomplished what they have accomplished in our division.”

Saban is not alone in his opinion. Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said, “In my opinion, the West is the toughest conference in football. I don’t think it’s even close. It’s a man’s league. There are no off weeks. The thing that stands out to me is the grind. If you’re not in it, you don’t understand it.”

Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen said that as he prepares scouting reports on upcoming opponents, he “can make a legitimate argument for all seven teams in the West” to win the championship. Mullen said he accepts the premise that the best team in the Pac-12, Big 10, etc., could compete in the SEC, but retorts with the argument that all seven teams in the SEC West can compete.

“You have got to be on your ‘A’ game every week,” he said. “You can’t play an okay game and find a way to squeak it out at the end. That’s not going to happen in the SEC West.”

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