Gap between Alabama and rest of SEC difficult to close because of Nick Saban

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the past dozen years, Florida coach Dan Mullen enjoyed a front-row seat and served as witness to college football history unfolding one state away in Alabama.

While at Mississippi State, Mullen spent nine seasons west of Tuscaloosa. The Gators’ coach is in his fourth season bordering coach Nick Saban’s eastern flank.

The view never seems to change for Mullen — or the rest of the SEC. Rarely do the results, either.

The ageless, indefatigable Saban and his around-the-clock football factory at Alabama continues to churn out championships and All-American talent at a remarkable clip.

“It’s the ultimate program,” Kentucky’s Mark Stoops said.

Beating the Crimson Tide — on the scoreboard, in the recruiting rankings or on NFL draft day — remains the ultimate challenge.

The Crimson Tide won their sixth national title in 12 seasons in January and produced six first-round during the 2021 draft in April.

Three of the four finalists for the 2020 Heisman Trophy played for Saban — and injured receiver Jaylen Waddle might have been Alabama’s best player.

“It’s unheard of. It’s incalculable,” said longtime SEC observer Paul Finebaum, who spent much of his media career in Birmingham.

The Crimson Tide’s dominance also has become a way of life in the nation’s top football conference.

Few have coached in Saban’s shadow longer than Mullen.

The 49-year-old enters Saturday’s visit from Saban’s top-ranked team in the Swamp seeking his first win in 11 meetings.

“You always want to challenge yourself against the best,” Mullen said. “I love these. These games are fun for me. You get the opportunity to go out there and go play in an unbelievable environment against an unbelievable team, the crowd going crazy.

“This is what it’s all about. This is why we do this.”

Even so, winning is a coach’s ultimate measuring stick. Here, Mullen and the rest of the SEC come up woefully, painfully short.

Mullen’s 10 losses against Saban’s teams are by an average of 19.7 points.

During the Gators’ dramatic 52-46 defeat in the 2020 SEC title game, Mullen’s squad never was in control. Mullen’s top-ranked Mississippi State squad in 2014 fell 25-20 to Alabama.

Often a team’s best is still not good enough to beat Saban and Co.

Since 2009, the Crimson Tide are 153-15.

“You almost can cite which games he’s lost because it’s been so few,” Finebaum said.

Saban’s formula for success has many ingredients, but one stands out to the 69-year-old coach.

“Every team has its own personality,” Saban said. “But [you’re] trying to develop a standard and a culture where everyone buys into the principles and values of the organization and respects and trust those things and trusts and respect each other. You lose so many guys each year in college football, it’s like rebuilding every team.

“We’re certainly working with our players to try to establish that culture to help us be successful and help them be successful individually.”

Saban’s North Star has led him atop the coaching pantheon.

Along the way, he has thrived in three critical areas:

— Recruiting

Saban is not one for small talk and has no social media presence yet easily relates to 16- and 17-year-old football stars.

“I’m not gonna lie: Coach Saban’s cooler than a fan,” said UF senior tailback Dameon Pierce, a one-time Alabama commitment.

Pierce is the rare recruit that got away.

Alabama has inked the top-ranked class eight of the past 10 years, according to 247Sports.

“All these top five-star recruits and top players, they know each or know of each other,” said ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, a national championship quarterback in 1982 at Penn State. “They want to go where they can go play together and win and compete for championships and have a great chance to be developed for the next level.”

Saban’s sphere of influence knows few bounds. Consider offensive tackle Tommy Brockermeyer, one of headliners in the 2021 class, is the son for former Texas All-American Blake Brockermeyer.

“Talk about the rich get richer,” Blackledge said. “Nick and his staff can get into to any living room of any kid because of the success they’ve had.”

— Development.

A NFL coordinator in 1990s and head coach a decade later, Saban identifies and develops talent as well as anyone in the college game.

This past Sunday, Alabama had an NFL-high 53 players on active rosters.

“He’s really good at projecting what players are NFL talents in the long run,” said CBS analyst Gary Danielson, a former NFL quarterback. “People will seek out the path that best gets them to the professional level.”

Danielson said Saban is able to convince players that coming to Alabama, sitting on the bench and practicing for two, even three seasons, against top talent is the best course.

On Week 1, more than 80% of NFL rosters featured at least one former Alabama player.

“Draft day is the biggest day of the year for this program from a recruiting standpoint,” Finebaum said.

— Staffing.

Turnover on Saban’s staff rarely has the crippling impact it can elsewhere. In fact, he uses it as a chance to upgrade.

Take the revolving door at offensive coordinator featuring Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkasian and Bill O’Brien. Kiffin is head coach at Ole Miss and Sarkisian at Texas. O’Brien, perhaps the best play caller of the three, coached in the NFL the past seven seasons.

Offensive line coach Doug Marrone came to Alabama from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Saban’s ability to reignite careers leads out-of-work, big-name coaches to Tuscaloosa to even assume analyst roles.

“They can recruit players and they can recruit coaches who want to go there and be part of that process,” Blackledge said.

Saban’s process also hinges on adapting to college football ever-changing landscape.

A decade ago, for example, Saban suggested up-tempo offenses, specifically Gus Malzahn’s at Auburn, led to fatigue and then injuries. These days, few teams play faster or score more points than Alabama, which averaged an SEC-record 48.5 points in 2020.

The transfer portal and one-time eligibility waivers have intensified player movement at many college programs. This past offseason, the Crimson Tide landed receiver Jameson Williams from Ohio State and Henry To’o To’o from Tennessee, two of the best available transfers, and lost no one expected to contribute.

Many viewed name, image and likeness legislation as another chance to create competitive balance.

Within weeks of the NIL’s July 1 launch, Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young reportedly had agreed to deals worth almost seven figures before he’d even started a college game. Saban conveniently shared the news while speaking to thousands of high school coaches in recruiting hotbed Texas before he headed to SEC Media Days to reiterate the news for a national TV audience.

“He’s turned everything that were supposed to level the playing field and he’s used to his advantage,” Danielson said.

Saban’s seven national titles, including one at LSU, is the gold standard, his mystique generational and his competitive drive unmatched.

Alabama lost the 2018 national title game by 28 points to Clemson and missed the the College Football Playoff in 2019 for the only time during the format’s seven-year existence.

In 2020, the Crimson Tide joined his 2009 squad as his only unbeaten teams.

Each time the gap closes, Saban finds his second wind and sprints ahead of the competition. The only question now is when he will take a breath and relax.

When it happens the rest of SEC will let out a sigh of relief.

“You don’t know when it’s going to end,” Finebaum said. “The problem for Alabama fans is they don’t think it’s ever going to end. They think Nick Saban is going to coach forever and win national championships forever.

“There is an end date ... when is it?”

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