It was about a year ago when college sports reporters began to come to the unlikely conclusion that Auburn would be the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference, perhaps win the national championship, and even have the Heisman Trophy winner.
In this part of the football world the response was, “Huh?!?!”
Auburn had finished 4-4 in SEC play in 2014 and the Tigers had lost their quarterback in Nick Marshall, who could run and throw for big plays; tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, the leading rusher in the conference; wide receiver Sammie Coates, a top ten SEC receiver; and center Reese Dismukes. (Some discounted the loss of Dismukes because he wasn’t drafted, but that was reportedly more about character than ability.) The Auburn defense had given up 400 yards and 26 points per game.
The primary reason for optimism about the Tigers was quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who had been very good in a start against Arkansas when Marshall had been suspended for half a game for allegedly driving around a couple of states while smoking dope.
The actual result was far closer to what should have been expected than what the now red-faced media had foreseen. Auburn finished with a 2-6 SEC record and limped into the Birmingham Bowl with a 6-6 overall record.
There was no Auburn quarterback in the top 13 among SEC passers, and certainly not in Heisman voting. Instead of the SEC’s top rusher, the Tigers’ Peyton Barber was ninth in the league. Auburn had only one receiver listed in the SEC’s top 45.
(Media members might have figured that Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn saw that Arkansas game and it’s likely he would have been playing the best quarterback in 2014 when the Tigers lost five games, four in SEC play.)
So why is this relevant?
Alabama is likely to get the star treatment when media begins serious pre-season predictions for 2016. To be sure, Alabama’s pedigree in this situation is much better than Auburn’s, but the Crimson Tide will have plenty of key positions to fill in the upcoming season.
Since 1992 (the year the SEC started its SEC Championship Game), the Tide has been predicted by the media to win the title six times. Bama has won the championship six times. Those years did not often match up, though. Alabama has won SEC championships in 1992 (Florida was the pre-season media selection), 1999 (Tennessee was the pick), 2009 (Florida picked), 2012 (LSU picked), 2014 (and Alabama was picked in 2014), and 2015 (Auburn picked).
Coming off not only the SEC championship, but also the national championship, there is a distinct possibility Bama will be the pre-season media selection for the SEC title in 2016. After all, Alabama has won 25 SEC football championships since the league began in 1933. That’s as many as the number two and three teams combined, Tennessee (13) and Georgia (12).
The media predictions since 1992 in selecting Alabama have been wrong in 1993 (lost SEC title game to Florida), 2000 (finished fifth in West as Florida won), 2010 (the year after a national championship and finished fourth in the West), 2011 (Alabama won the national championship, but LSU won the SEC), and 2013 (tied for SEC West, but Auburn won the league).
But consider what Alabama lost from last year’s team. On offense, Bama lost Heisman Trophy winning tailback Derrick Henry, SEC Championship Game MVP quarterback Jacob Coker, Rimington Award winning center Ryan Kelly.
From a numbers standpoint, Alabama had 2,999 rushing yards last year, led by Henry’s 2,219, and only 304 yards return. That means The Tide lost 89.9 per cent of its 2015 rushing production. Alabama had 33 rushing touchdowns last year, and lost 31, which is 93.9 per cent gone.
Passing? Alabama completed 301 passes last year, 263 by Coker, and lost 87.7 per cent of completions. Bama had 3,407 passing yards and returns only 8.5 per cent of them, 291 yards. Coker threw for 21 of Bama’s 22 touchdowns, so 95.5 per cent gone.
That doesn’t include Bama losing leading tackler Reggie Ragland, No. 3 Geno Matias-Smith, No. 4 Jarran Reed, No. 6 A’Shawn Robinson, and No. 10 Cyrus Jones. The Tide also lost kickoff return man Kenyan Drake and punt returner Cyrus Jones.
Since 1992, the media prediction (made at SEC Media Days each July) has been picking the correct winner five times in 24 attempts.
Of course, Alabama has Nick Saban as head coach, and Saban has a history of success in what he calls “re-assembling” a football team. Personnel losses notwithstanding, the Tide will look like a good bet to repeat.