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Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) hands the SEC championship trophy to other team members after the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta. Alabama won 54-16. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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Mark Wiedmer

ATLANTA — A good 15 minutes had passed since the close of top-ranked Alabama's 54-16 Southeastern Conference championship game win over Florida inside the Georgia Dome. The last strains of "Sweet Home Alabama" had fallen silent inside the Georgia Dome. Confetti had pretty much found its landing spots, glistening like frozen rain upon the green plastic grass.

Even Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban was briefly all smiles, an event more rare than Bama losing one of these things, which hasn't happened since 2008.

And perhaps because of that — or because the rumor mill believes he may be the property of LSU football before the College Football Playoff begins — Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin made a slightly bold statement about the team he currently helps coach.

"With our defense, if we don't turn the ball over," he said Saturday night, "we're going to be hard to beat."

They've been impossible to beat through their first 13 games. Playing a schedule that included Southern Cal and eight SEC games, plus the league title game, the Tide's average score has been 40.5 to 11.8.

It's enough to make one wonder if these Tiders just might be the best Bama bunch ever. Better than Bear Bryant's national champions of the 1960s and late 1970s. Better than Gene Stallings' stunning defensive unit in 1992. Better even than Saban's 2009 undefeated champs.

And for proof, we need merely turn to Florida coach Jim McElwain, who's seen at least three previous Bama national champs from both up close and afar, having been a Tide assistant in 2009 and 2011 before facing last year's national champs in that year's SEC title game.

"(This Bama team), in my opinion, is the best team, top to bottom, that (Saban) has had since he's been there," McElwain said early in his postgame remarks. "They're built a little different — just the overall team speed."

A few minutes after that he added, "I think this is the best 85 that they've probably traveled with to the SEC championship game. I mean, that's a real ball squad."

That speed, especially among the Tide's defensive linemen and linebackers, limited Florida to zero rushing yards in the game. And while the Gators did throw for 261 yards, they also tossed three interceptions.

You want a ball squad? The Tide's first two touchdowns came on a Minkah Fitzpatrick 44-yard interception return and a Josh Jacobs 27-yard blocked-punt return. The interception return was Alabama's 10th defensive touchdown of the season, which leads the nation by three over Ohio State.

Yet when someone asked Saban if his team had played its best game, he said, "We certainly didn't play as well today. We didn't start the game well offensively. There's a lot of things I think we can improve on."

There were a few brief moments of concern. True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts lost 10 yards on both his first offensive snap of the game and his first snap of the second half. He seemed to underthrow more than one receiver, hitting a pedestrian 11 of 20 passes on the day for 138 yards and one touchdown.

There is also Kiffin's future. He is supposedly a finalist for the Houston head coaching job, and failing that, LSU coach Ed Orgeron may pay as much as $2 million a year to make him the Tigers' offensive coordinator. Internet rumors even have Kiffin leaving the Tide before the playoffs begin.

Saban acknowledged that he knows the former UT coach wants to be a head coach again and that they might talk about other options "over the next two weeks."

Asked directly if he intended to coach in the playoffs, Kiffin said, "If they'll let me."

Yet putting the soap opera that is the young and restless Kiffin aside, the Tide did beat the Gators by 38, which is the second widest victory margin in the SEC title game's 25-year history, trailing only Auburn's 56-17 win over South Carolina in 2010.

All of this pretty much guarantees that the Crimson Tide will be the No. 1 seed when the College Football Playoff semifinal pairings are announced today. And with one semifinal scheduled for the same Georgia Dome that hosted the SEC title game, it's assumed that Bama will be right back in this building on Dec. 31 to begin defense of last year's title.

Nor should anyone expect complacency to set in between now and then.

"We don't like giving up points," said Tide linebacker Reuben Foster, the title game MVP. "We don't like giving up first downs. We hate that."

So it begins anew. Another chase for another national title, of which the Tide already owns, by its estimate, 16.

Listen closely to Saban and there's no question he's gunning for his fifth with Alabama over the last eight years and sixth overall (2003 at LSU).

While talking about his team probably not practicing again as one unit until Dec. 16, he mentioned the players' personal responsibility to put the team first whenever possible over the next couple of weeks.

"They've created a situation for themselves where they have a chance to create a legacy for this team," he said. "So that's something they should think about, how important that is, what are they willing to do to do it. So that's just something to think about for now, but I think the players should enjoy this championship for 24 hours at least, and focus on school."

Then it's back to work for the best Alabama team Saban's had, the one on track to create a legacy as perhaps the best of the Tide's national champions, or at least the best one of the Saban era. Who knows? He might even let Kiffin stick around to be a part of it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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