SEC East loaded with Saban disciples, but can they ever beat him?

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Florida coach Jim McElwain

HOOVER, Ala. – Let’s talk about the SEC East, which wallows around for three months and gets to send a team to the SEC Championship Game, where it plays the role of the Washington Generals facing the Harlem Globetrotters.

Who’s the favorite this year? Find a four-sided coin. There is parity in the East and, said Georgia’s Kirby Smart, “Parity is really good competition.”

Just not good enough to beat Alabama. Again. After all, not since Tim Tebow was at Florida, in 2008, has an SEC East team won the title.

The coaching roster in the SEC East is a fascinating one.

There is Tennessee’s Butch Jones. What’s the old line that every man knows how to cook a steak or run a hotel better than any other man? In Tennessee, add to that equation “coach football at UT.” He’s won nine games the past two years but he forgot to beat Vanderbilt last year and he forgot to exude enough warmth to melt butter. Those flaws buy him little grace from fans and media.

Derek Mason is the Vanderbilt coach. He impresses you as the sunny sort of guy who would remind you that so what if there’s six feet of water in the basement, that the roof remains flawless.

Barry Odom, who doesn’t exactly have the media making sure our recorder batteries are charged for his Wednesday morning SEC Media Days appearance, is at Missouri.

Mark Stoops is at Kentucky, part of the Stoops Family Coaching Clan, with his recently retired brother Mike, Ron Jr. and the recently retired Oklahoma head coach, Bob Stoops.

On the subject of family trees…

The rest of the SEC East is coached by Nick Saban disciples. They are Georgia’s Smart, Florida’s Jim McElwain and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp.

They are part of an ever blossoming Saban coaching tree, along with guys like Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett, Michigan State’s Mark D’Antonio and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp. (Saban, of course, having been an acorn not fallen far from the Bill Belichick tree.)

McElwain replaced Muschamp at Florida, the latter seeming somewhat overwhelmed by his position and going 4-8 and 7-5 his last two years after an 11-2 sophomore season.

That was Muschamp’s first head coaching gig, just as this is for Smart. They’re both steeped in Southern football. They seem heavily influenced by Saban.

Then again, so do a lot of coaches these days. They’ve taken the latitude to become more controlling and less media-friendly, much as another generation of coaches sought to master the poor-mouthing of Saban’s predecessor, one Paul W. “Bear” Bryant.

McElwain doesn’t fit the mold. First, he ain’t from ‘round here. He’s a native Montanan, and more than a couple of times reminded us of his Montana mountain home.

(He, too, was influenced by a bear. “Truth is,” he told us, “it ran through the breezeway of the cabin, and it looked hungry. But I’m not sure who was more scared, us or him, you know?”)

McElwain brought to Florida three years’ previous experience as a head coach, going 22-16 at Colorado State after four years at Alabama as offensive coordinator. He was an important piece in Tuscaloosa, heavily influencing QBs like Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron.

Said Saban last year, “He did a fabulous job for us.”

You might not necessarily hear similar reviews of offensive coordinators. (See under, Kiffin, Lane.)

McElwain is self-effacing and interesting. He can take a fun jab and give one back. At 55, he got a few more miles on the odometer than Smart (41) and Muschamp (45) and that helps his demeanor.

What McElwain has seems to know best of the three is this:

You must try to win like Coach Saban. But you better coach like yourself.

Mark McCarter, a four-time Alabama Sports Writer of the Year and a reporter and columnist for 35-plus years, is a special contributor for at the 2017 SEC Media Days. Follow his columns and live blogs this week on