We beg to differ

The ballots are in, and the Auburn Tigers are the runaway favorites to finally win more than their now infamous (and self-ascribed) "Co-Western Division Championship" title.

Sixty-three percent of writers voting tabbed Auburn as their favorites to win the SEC. Should the writers prove prescient, it will only be the Tigers' sixth conference title, their first since 1989.

SEC West Final Balloting

(First-place votes in parenthesis)
  1. Auburn (60)
  2. LSU (13)
  3. Arkansas (2)
  4. Alabama (1)
  5. Ole Miss (2)
  6. Mississippi State

LSU's Michael Clayton is superb. (Associated Press)

Auburn was predicted to win the West on 60 of 78 ballots. LSU was second, on 13 ballots, Arkansas third, Alabama fourth, Ole Miss fifth and Mississippi State sixth.

As a writer for BamaMag.com, it'll likely surprise no one that my opinion differed.

No question Auburn heads into the 2003 season with both gifted players and momentum. But I rate LSU's overall talent as equal--if not better. And without meaning to insult the Tuberville family, from a head coaching comparison it's not even close.

Nick Saban may be a jerk, but right now that jerk is the best head coach in the conference.

Saban proved two years ago in Atlanta versus Tennessee that he's capable of beating you even when you have better talent. And I frankly don't think Auburn has superior players--at least not overall.

Certainly the Tigers have a clear advantage at linebacker and running back, but LSU's offensive line is potentially excellent. And led by All-American Michael Clayton, the Bengal Tiger receivers are outstanding as well. Defensive line and quarterback are a wash. But as I see it, LSU also rates better than Auburn on special teams and in the secondary.

No offense Auburn fans (though I'm sure they'll be offended anyway), but Tuberville is going to have to prove to me that he can beat an equally talented Saban-coached team.

We rate the "personality challenged" Saban as the SEC's best coach. (Associated Press)

My West ballot had LSU first, followed closely by Auburn. I rated Alabama ahead of Ole Miss and then Arkansas (don't believe me, look at last year's results), with Mississippi State bringing up the rear. Frankly, I can logically come up with scenarios where any of the first five could end up on top.

NOTE to Crimson Tide fans: As an Alabama beat writer, I'd love to rate the Tide higher. Had certain coaches not proved so feckless, based on talent and last year's record Bama frankly should be favorites. But it's been a horrific winter for the Tide (probably an understatement), and right now there are just too many logical reasons to predict differently.

SEC East Final Balloting

(First-place votes in parenthesis)
  1. Georgia (42)
  2. Tennessee (30)
  3. Florida (6)
  4. South Carolina
  5. Kentucky
  6. Vanderbilt

In the Eastern Division, Georgia was predicted to win on 42 of 78 ballots followed by Tennessee, which was placed first on 30 ballots and Florida, which was on six ballots. South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt rounded out the division.

Richt's coaching star is on the rise.

It must be some kind of miracle, but my Eastern Division ballot was identical to the outcome.

Based only on talent returning, Tennessee probably deserves to be rated ahead of Georgia. But Fulmer frankly lost control of his team last year, inexplicably allowing the lunatics to run the asylum. It may be true (as Fulmer clearly wants everyone to believe) that 2002 was a rotten-orange aberration, but I wonder if the Vol problems run deeper than just Kelley Washington. The self-named "Future" is thankfully now part of college football's past. But I can't help recalling that senior quarterback Casey Clausen (who's back and being touted by Vol fans as a team leader) was Washington's biggest defender last year.

Georgia coach Mark Richt is definitely the golden boy of the SEC right now. But if he loses yet again to a Florida team even weaker this year than last, the arc of his now rapidly rising star will be diminished.

On my ballot I had LSU and Georgia meeting in Atlanta. LSU's only real weakness heading into the season is its (so-far) lack of a championship quarterback. But based on the assumption that if the Bengal Tigers make it to the championship game then they must have found their man, I gave them the slightest of edges over the Dawgs to win the title.

Can Fulmer improve Tennessee's recently battered profile? (GettyImages)

Balloting Notes

  • Of the more than 600 writers/reporters registered at SEC Media Days, only 78 cast a ballot. Six of those didn't name an overall champion.
  • The Tigers were picked as SEC Champions on 45 of 78 ballots followed by Georgia on 12 ballots, Tennessee on 10, LSU 6, Ole Miss and Florida 2 each and Arkansas one. The Tigers are predicted to defeat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
  • This marks the first time since expansion (1992), that Auburn was selected to win the SEC Championship, and the second-team that the Tigers were predicted to win the West (1995).

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