Although Alabama has won far more SEC championships (24) than any other team, the Crimson Tide won many of those prior to the start of the SEC Championship Game in 1992. Alabama won that first one, and has won five since the championship game format started. Repeating is not easy. It has not happened since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998. Before that, Florida – which has won seven SEC Championship Games, won four in a row beginning in 1993.
In a Sunday teleconference with Alabama Coach Nick Saban, he was asked about the difficulty of repeating in the league’s championship game. “I just think it speaks to the quality of the league and how many good teams there always are in this league,” Saban said. “There's certainly a lot of good teams this year.
“Florida's one of the best teams I've seen. I've only watched a little bit of film this afternoon, but they're a very, very good team and very capable of winning the SEC. So I think this is just an indication of the quality of the league and how many good teams there are.”
More to the point, Saban doesn’t think that Alabama’s win in last year’s game has anything to do with this week’s challenge, which is typical of the Tide coach. He seems always in the moment, not looking back, not looking past the task at hand. He said, “I think this team is focused on what they can accomplish as a group, what they've worked hard for all year long to try to accomplish, and I don't think they think about who won back-to-back championships. I don't think they think that winning last year's championship is going to have anything to do with winning this year's championship game.
“I just think that they really would like to -- for what they work for and what they want to try to accomplish, this is the game that they've worked to try to get into, and I think they want to be successful in this game because of that.”
Saban is happy to have his team in the championship game, made possible by winning seven consecutive conference games after losing its first SEC game to Ole Miss. Bama finished that string of nine straight total wins with a 29-13 win over Auburn in Auburn Saturday.
“I'm certainly very proud of what our team has done,” Saban said. “They've had their backs against the wall since the Ole Miss game early in the season and really come through just about every time they needed to in some tough circumstances on the road as well as playing well at home against some very good teams.
“I think we've improved as the season's gone on. So I'm very proud of what they've been able to accomplish. But the legacy of the team gets determined by how they finish.
“I think the SEC Championship Game is one of the best competitive venues, other than the National Championship Game or the playoff game, that I've ever been in. It still means a lot to us to be in the SEC Championship Game, and it certainly means a lot if you can accomplish winning the SEC. Regardless of what anybody might say, there's a lot of good teams, a lot of good coaches, a lot of good programs.
“It's something special to me to be able to play in the game and have an opportunity to maybe win a Championship. That's what your players work for, and that's certainly what our guys have worked for all year long and certainly something that we're pleased to have the opportunity to do.
“Obviously, having an opportunity to go back to the SEC Championship Game is an honor for all of us, but we're also going to be playing against a very good Florida team, who has a lot of talented players and a really good coach. Jim McElwain has done a fabulous job with the players that they have. They're a very talented defensive team, and they've got really good skill players, and they're always very, very dangerous. So this is a dangerous team to have to play and certainly a team we're going to have to play our best against to be able to have a chance to be successful.”
Alabama, of course, has been playing good football and has been rewarded with being ranked second in the nation going into the championship level. Following the win over Auburn, he said that he wasn’t a coach who just wanted to run the ball and play defense. He was asked about that again Sunday insofar as making Derrick Henry his “workhorse,” and said, “I think we grew into it, and I think some of the things that happened, some of the circumstances -- Robert Foster was a very talented receiver we lost in the Ole Miss game for the season. We lost a couple other receivers to injuries, Chris Black. We had a new quarterback (Jacob Coker), and he's developed nicely and done a really good job for us all year long.
“But it just seemed to me that the offensive line made progress throughout the course of the year, and Derrick played better and better. We certainly need to create balance in our offense and do more things maybe, but that's something that we've been able to do fairly well, and we certainly don't want to give up on it.”
An obvious strength of the Tide is a defensive front seven that has been called the best in the nation, one of the best ever at Bama. Saban said, “A lot of the guys that are playing on our front seven have played in the past. We only have one freshman who contributes and plays. All the rest of the guys have played quite a lot of football and have a lot of starts. We thought this should be one of the strengths of our team from the very beginning.
“They certainly haven't disappointed us in terms of how they performed and how they played this year. We still look to try to improve and be a little more consistent in our performance. This is something that was our expectation for this group all year long.”
Saban also touched on Alabama’s injury siutuation. Linebacker Denzel Devall suffered a slightly sprained knee against Auburn, but Saban said he could have returned to the game. Tailback Kenyan Drake has been out since suffering a broken arm against Mississippi State two weeks ago, but he was dressed for the Auburn game. Saban said he would practice this week and if he was “comfortable” and “confident.”
Much of the conversation Sunday was about coaches. Saban discussed how he came to hire Jim McElwain as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2007 and how he is happy when his assistants can go on and improve themselves. And there was also much talk of openings and veiled discussion of whether any current Alabama assistants might be moving on to head jobs.
Regarding the circus that was LSU football for a week regarding the status of Les Miles, and the Sunday announcement that Mark Richt, head coach at Georgia for 15 years, had been fired, Saban said, “I don't know what the world is coming to in our profession. Mark Richt has been a really good coach and a really positive person in our profession for a long, long time. I think, when you win nine games, that's a pretty good season, especially with the body of work that he's been able to put together there.
“I hate to see people that have the character and quality and ability to affect young people in a positive way like Mark Richt not be a part of our profession. People don't realize the importance of some of the other things that go into college coaching, whether it's helping develop young men as people, helping them develop careers off the field by graduating from school.
“We all get it. We know we have to win games. Winning nine games is not bad, and he certainly won a lot of games for a long time. I hate to see these kinds of things.”
Bama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart, a Georgia graduate who has been rumored for several head jobs, and now the Georgia position, got a positive reference from Saban. “I've said many times before in years past that Kirby has done a fantastic job for us, and I think he'll be an outstanding head coach,” Saban said. “I don't think everything you do as an assistant necessarily prepares you as a head coach, but I also think by the same token, that Kirby is very capable of doing all the things necessary to be a head coach.
“He's a good teacher. Players respond to him well. He's outgoing. He's got a good personality. I think he'll do a good job in all the other areas that you're talking about. I don't have any question about that at all.”
One area of possible conflict for a coaching staff does not concern Saban. He doesn’t expect anyone to abandon Alabama for another job at this time of year. “I've got a lot of confidence in our guys that they're certainly committed to our team and doing the things they need to do to help our team be successful, and I think each and every one of them know that, if they are being considered, it's certainly an honor for them, and I certainly want to help them every way I can,” Saban said. “But the better we play in every game that they're responsible for, the better opportunity they have to advance and reach the goals and aspirations they have professionally. But I'm totally confident the guys will do everything they can to help this team play well in this game.”