SEC Media Days have been in full swing for a few days now, but let's go ahead and call a spade a spade: The action doesn't really kick off until Nick Saban takes the podium.
The Alabama coach did that on Wednesday morning, but under slightly different circumstances than in years past, where, for the first time in a long time, he doesn't appear to have the prohibitive favorite in the West.
Sure, Alabama could win it. But coming off a season in which Brian Kelly's LSU squad - in Year 1 of a rebuild - beat the Tide and went to Atlanta to represent the West, it does feel like a lot of public momentum is on the Bayou Bengals.
But should it be?
Has LSU officially passed Alabama as the top team and program in the West?
Aaron Torres and AT Media college football writer Garrett Carr debate
There’s no doubt that LSU has made huge strides in just 19 months under Brian Kelly. Kelly, who I consider to be the best coach in the country without a national title, proved that last year. LSU beat Alabama en route to an SEC West title and a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Title Game. Now, the question is if the Tigers have caught the Crimson Tide and are now the favorites in the division this year.
The answer to that question is “no, not yet.” While LSU has made up ground on Nick Saban’s dynasty, the division is still Alabama’s to lose.
The biggest difference between the two teams this year is that Alabama simply has more talent. That’s not to say that LSU isn’t talented, but it can’t match up man-for-man with the star power and potential of the Crimson Tide. According to Athlon Sports, Alabama’s average recruiting ranking over the past five years is 1.4, whereas LSU’s is a respectable, but much less 6. In terms of talent, there will be no holes on this Alabama team. Yes, Brian Kelly’s team appears to have a big advantage at quarterback, where Jayden Daniels seems much better than any of the options in Tuscaloosa, Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson, and Tyler Buchner. But, Saban has won plenty without great quarterback play in the past.
And, this figures to be a hungry Alabama team after two straight subpar seasons by the lofty standards that Saban set there in his first sixteen seasons at the helm. Two new coordinators come in to help shake things up in offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, and odds are they will be better than the underwhelming combination of Bill O’Brien and Pete Golding.
While I said the talent is the biggest difference between the two, the fact that their game on November 4 will be played at Bryant-Denny Stadium instead of in Death Valley in Baton Rogue is a difference-maker as well. The Tigers’ only win in a decade in Tuscaloosa was when Joe Burrow and co. were putting up offensive numbers that may never be replicated. And, those guys aren’t coming out of the tunnel in yellow, purple, and white.
LSU will be a top-ten team this year when it’s all said and done, but Alabama will return to to Atlanta after a one-year absence to play in the SEC Championship game.
So, Garrett, I'll be blunt: I'm disappointed you took this stance.
Only because I agree with you 100 percent.
First off, let me start by re-emphasizing what you just did: This isn't a knock on Brian Kelly or his program. I've been a "Brian Kelly guy" since back in his Cincinnati days, and truly believe he did about as good of a job as anyone could in the modern era at Notre Dame. The fact that he took LSU - a program that had 39 scholarship players when he took over, lost its best defensive player on the second series of last season and started two true freshmen at offensive tackle - to Atlanta last year was a minor college football miracle.
But the same reasons that last year was a miracle, are the same reasons I'm not all the way bought in, in 2023.
The bottom line is that while LSU's front-line depth is as good as anyone's, this is still a program in the middle of a rebuild. Did you see what I just said? He inherited a program with 39 scholarship players! Thirty-nine!!!!! The fact that he has taken close to 40 players out of the portal the last two off-seasons, while Alabama has taken around 10, and Georgia two, tells you everything you need to know about the holes that need to be filled on this roster.
I also think that the other point you bring up is an important one: As down as some are on Alabama this year, they are still, by every recruiting metric, the most talented team in college football. Even more so than even Georgia, at least on paper.
And really, as I think about the Alabama conversation heading into the season, what it really boils down to, is two things for me:
For the first time in forever, they don't have an established quarterback. It's skewing the conversation on them, especially in comparison to LSU returning the most established signal-caller in the league
LSU did in fact have that head-to-head win last year in Baton Rouge.
Yet let me ask a different question: LSU won that game, on the final play, in overtime, on a two-point conversion.
If Jayden Daniels' pass gets tipped at the line of scrimmage, or dropped by the receiver, are we still having this conversation? I think not.
It shows how one play can change the perception of two programs.
It also shows why, for the first time, in maybe over a decade, Alabama is actually undervalued coming into this season.
Roll. Damn. Tide.
Follow Aaron on Twitter - @Aaron_Torres
Follow Garrett on Twitter - @TheRealGarrettCarr