- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Alabama fifth-year senior tight end Preston Dial arrived at the football building at 11:30 a.m. Monday, an hour earlier than he had usually arrived since the season began. The earlier time is the new normal. The SEC season has begun.
"You're expected to prepare the same for everybody," Dial said, "but I know what's about to happen."
Tennessee linebacker coach Lance Thompson left his football office at 10 p.m. Monday.
"There's a reason," Thompson said, "the TV contract is as big as it is. There's a reason that there is 98 percent occupancy in very big stadiums."
The SEC has played a few conference games already, as Georgia is all too aware. But the four conference games Saturday indicate that the grind is about to begin. No. 1 Alabama, which has won 16 consecutive regular-season conference games, plays at No. 10 Arkansas. No. 12 South Carolina goes to No. 17 Auburn.
"This is sort of a new season, when you start playing in the SEC," said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who is in his ninth season in the league.
Though it annoys to no end the rest of college football to hear it, the SEC is different. The league is working on its fifth consecutive national championship. Only one of the previous four survived its conference season undefeated.
"Ask Houston Nutt," former Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said, referring to the Ole Miss coach whose Rebels lost, 28-14, at home to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
There are plenty of other statistics and ratings by which to calibrate the primacy of the SEC.
"In this league, there are legitimately 10 teams, maybe more, that can be Top 25 teams," Thompson said.
Actually, in the past four seasons, the only team that hasn't been ranked at least two weeks is Mississippi State. Since 2006, the SEC has played 38 conference games in which both teams were ranked.
The 98 percent rate of attendance to which Thompson referred includes seven stadiums with more than 80,000 seats. No other FBS conference has more than four of that size.
Above all, however, is the simple fact that the SEC has more big, fast players than the other leagues. Before he arrived at Kentucky, Brooks spent 18 seasons as head coach at Oregon.
"The biggest difference is how good the defensive personnel is throughout the league," said Brooks, who retired after last season. "Other leagues have just as good offensive personnel. The SEC has the best on defense I've ever seen. Speed is one thing. Physical is one thing. SEC defenses are both."
Thompson has been an assistant coach at Alabama and LSU before coming to Tennessee a year ago.
"The two things that are distinctly different," he said, "are the size and the athleticism of the linemen on both sides of the ball, and the speed and athleticism of the skill guys. It's not exotic schemes on offense. It's the sheer mass of the big guys and the athleticism and speed of everybody else. You have to be fortunate in terms of injuries. Anytime you get this many big people, there are terrible collisions."
Alabama equipment manager Tank Conerly has been in the job since 1987, through seven head coaches. Once the conference season begins, Conerly changes out more face masks and chin straps every week than he does in the early season.
"I don't know if it's a need," Conerly said, "or it's just anticipation of league play. You just know what's at stake. It trickles down from the coaches to the players to the support people."
That includes the trainers.
"The time that people put in in the training room is about to go up," Dial said. "I know I will put at least an extra hour a day. You're going to get tight, and get nicked up, have contusions and bruises."
The extra time in the training room is a precaution. It's also an acknowledgment that, as sure as the autumnal equinox, the SEC conference season is in full swing.
"Everybody has got a feeling that the preseason is over," Dial said. "The games we play to get where we need to be are on. ... I don't know if I need more treatment. But I think I do."
Dial plays for a coach famous for impressing upon his players the importance of preparing every single day. In a practice two weeks before the season began, Saban implored his players that they can't wait until next week, when the Crimson Tide plays Florida, to get ready for Florida.
"This is Florida week!" Saban roared.
Preparation may have to remain consistent. But Saban acknowledged Monday that the games are about to demand more.
"I think everyone has got to fight a better fight against better competition," he said.
There is none better than in the SEC.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
Although it annoys to no end the rest of college football to hear it, the SEC is different. And the players know it. This weekend, the real season begins.