The biggest name in SEC football took the stage for the conference’s annual media days Wednesday afternoon.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, leader of the three-time defending SEC champion Crimson Tide, was first to speak on the main podium on Day 3 in Hoover, Alabama. Among the topics he discussed with national media was the program’s youth, last year’s national title game loss to Clemson and the status of some of Alabama’s top contributors coming off injury. Not uncommon for Saban, his 20-minute session also saw some dry wit and even a possible dig at Alabama’s top rival, however subtle it was.
Here are the highlights from Saban’s press conference on Wednesday:
In his opening statement, Saban said that this year’s team is possibly the youngest since 2012, when the Tide won their third of four titles this decade. But he noted that having rising sophomore Jalen Hurts returning under center is a big boost. This is the first year since 2013 that he’ll have an incumbent at starting quarterback.
It creates the opportunity for [Hurts] to develop in the things that he needs to do better, which Jalen has done a good job in the offseason of becoming a better passer, understanding the passing game better…
It’s going to be a challenge for us offensively to be able to have the kind of team that we need to have to help our defense, especially early on. But I think it’s important that our team develop an identity, which is always a challenge from a coaching standpoint, that all the players buy into, take ownership for, and are accountable to.
Alabama started 13-0 last season before losing to Clemson in the national championship game on a last-second touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow. Saban said being “willing to change” was an important mindset to have this offseason.
I want to learn. I don’t want to waste a failure. What could we have done better? Because everybody’s hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game, but it wasn’t the last play. It’s what led up to the last play. And I think our players realize that.
The Crimson Tide have won three straight SEC championships and are 17-0 in their last 17 conference games. But when asked about the competitive balance in the league, Saban said there’s still a lot of parity in conference play.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for a lot of teams in our league. I mean, LSU is very, very good. Ole Miss has beaten us a couple times in the last few years. Mississippi State has got a good quarterback coming back. Arkansas’s got a good quarterback coming back. A&M’s always a very challenging team.
I think Kirby [Smart]’s doing a great job at Georgia. Jim McElwain is doing a good job at Florida. Tennessee has gotten better and better every year. I am trying to think of somebody in our league that I don’t have a tremendous amount of respect for. Vanderbilt went to a Bowl game last year and had a winning season.
Those are a lot of teams Saban rattled off. But do you notice one particular SEC West rival missing from the list?
Yes, Iron Bowl rival Auburn was notably absent from Saban’s answer. Sure, there’s a good chance there was no meaning behind Saban’s off-the-cuff response, but it’s fun to believe this is just another piece to the rivalry. Alabama and Auburn square off in the 2017 Iron Bowl on Nov. 25 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
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Saban was also asked about a new 2017 rule that allows officials to assess a 15-yard penalty, without warning, whenever a coach steps onto the playing field to argue a referee’s call. He said he supports the initiative but he may need some extra help from assistant coaches to hold him back from committing some of those penalties.
Well, we’ve always had a get-back coach. And we think we need more than one now maybe.
As for injury updates, Saban said that both running back Bo Scarbrough and linebacker Shaun Dion-Hamilton will be ready to go for the new season. Scarbrough, who fractured his leg in the national championship game, had no restrictions over the summer. Dion-Hamilton (knee) was held out of spring activities but will be full-go for fall camp.
Both should be ready for Alabama’s Week 1 primetime matchup against Florida State on Saturday, Sept. 2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. That matchup will likely be a top three meeting in the polls.
Florida State, especially, is built like an SEC team, you know, like our teams. You think of Florida State, you think of fast, explosive players which they have a lot of, but they are also a big, physical, play great defense, tough, you know, team. And I think it’s probably Jimbo’s experience in this league that sort of why he built his team that way. And that’s certainly the kind of team that they have this year.
Finally, Saban had a one-word, three-letter answer to a question about what it takes to build up coaching longevity, especially at a football school like Alabama: “Win.”
He expanded on that response by reflecting on his journey from LSU to the NFL and back to the SEC with Alabama more than a decade ago, and how that’s impacted him as a coach:
I loved LSU. I loved Louisiana, I loved the people in Louisiana. But it was always in my mind that I was going to go be a head coach in the NFL someday. And I did that, and I learned a lot about myself and felt very fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to go back to an SEC school that had a chance to be successful and an administration who would make the kind of commitment to do the things to help players be successful, to create value for players so you can recruit good players and coach good players and have a chance to be successful.
This year’s SEC Media Days wrap up Thursday with the final three programs speaking to reporters. Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina will be in attendance.