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Only parity SEC sees is parity behind Alabama

HOOVER, Ala. -- As mundane and -- frankly -- flat as this year's edition of SEC media days were, Alabama head coach Nick Saban served up a comment which, when looked at in the right context, should serve as an elephant-sized gut punch to the rest of the league.

In a moment where some thought the 65-year-old Saban had either lost his marbles or was hinting at a future in bad stand-up comedy, the coach offered this compliment to the rest of the SEC.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for a lot of teams in our league," Saban said. "I am trying to think of somebody in our league that I don't have a tremendous amount of respect for. ... I think there's a lot of parity in our league. I think it's very challenging from a consistency standpoint in our league.

"So I have tremendous amount of respect, and I don't see us being any different than anybody else when it comes to the challenges of preparation and getting ready to play really good teams that we have a tremendous amount of respect for."

It was a good attempt at lifting up a group that's eons away from Saban and his program -- he even threw in a remark about how young his team is! -- but the coach's statements carried little weight in a room full of media minds. Saban might be trying to insinuate that teams are a lot closer to the top -- where his team sits comfortably -- than fans or the media might realize, but that isn't remotely true.

There is parity in the league, yes, but only behind Saban and his Crimson Tide. No, teams do not prepare, develop or build the same way Alabama does. That's why the SEC is a one-team league, and the gap is so big right now that it almost seems foolish to contemplate picking someone besides Alabama to win the conference so long as Saban is coaching in Tuscaloosa.

"The consistency of that program over the years did not come overnight," said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, who is 1-4 against Saban's Tide during his time with the Aggies. "I think people understand that. But you can't argue that that is the mark, and that's where everybody wants to be.

"You can win a lot of games in the West, and that one can take its toll on you. I think it took its toll on us the last couple of years, matter of fact."

Alabama takes its toll on everyone. In the past three seasons, the Tide have owned the league, winning 25 of 27 games against SEC opponents. The only SEC West opponent who has managed to beat Alabama since Auburn's magical kick-six win in 2013 is Ole Miss (twice); the SEC East, meanwhile, is 0-9 against the Crimson Tide.

Of Alabama's 25 wins over SEC opponents in three seasons, 20 have been by double figures, including the last eight -- which Alabama won by a combined 219 points (27.4-point margin of victory). During that stretch, five different SEC teams have won 10 games, but West has largely failed to challenge the Tide. The East, for its part, has been widely condemned as one of the nation's worst divisions.

Alabama has been the national darling, posting three consecutive College Football Playoff appearances and a 1-1 record in the national title game. But the weight of the program is dragging the rest of the league down, creating (at best) 13 onlookers and (at worst) sacrificial lambs.

Even trips to Atlanta have become mundane for the Tide; Alabama has pulverized the East champion 125-44 in the past three games it has played in the Georgia Dome.

"I don't know the gap itself [between Alabama and the rest of the SEC]," said Jim McElwain, whose Gators have been outscored 83-31 by Alabama in the past two SEC title games. "I do understand this: They're right now at the top, and, you know, it's up to the rest of us to go get them."

While the gap is considerable, successful recruiting is the key to dethroning the Tide. Fortunately, SEC teams have taken full advantage of the fertile recruiting ground they have access to in the South. While Alabama has hauled in three No. 1 classes in the past four years, the league has landed 16 other top-10 classes, according to ESPN's class rankings.

The crop of head coaches in today's SEC might not be on par with the distinguished figures that held office during Saban's early Alabama years (Urban Meyer, Mark Richt, Phillip Fulmer and Les Miles), but the amount of talent this league attracts is still enormous. And if you're going to take quality swipes at Alabama's powerful core, you have to consistently recruit at an elite level.

"The biggest thing is recruiting and development," said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who spent nine seasons with Saban at Alabama and signed this year's No. 3 class. "And I think every team in this conference is trying to play catch-up in regards to that. I think each one's getting closer, and we'd like to see that gap closed through recruiting."

Saban is the one true king of the SEC. He sits on the league's iron throne, and while a few teams are jockeying to overthrow him, none enter the 2017 season fit to even touch his feet. With Saban harboring no intentions of stepping down anytime soon, the league's game of perpetual catch-up will only tire people out.