On Making Predictions

Over 700 media members are registered for this week's annual Southeastern Conference Media Days, to be held at the Wynfrey Hotel at the Galleria in suburban Birmingham. There will also be a majority of SEC coaches present, perhaps even all of them. Near the conclusion of the event on Thursday, the SEC will release the pre-season All-SEC team and predicted order of finish by "the media." It will be nearly meaningless.

Yes, Georgia will be picked as the SEC champion. LSU, the defending national champion, will be picked to win the West. And the majority of other selections will be just as reasonable.

But there are several reasons the polls will be flawed.

For one thing, the ballots will be counted before media members have even heard from several of the head coaches (assuming they are there). Although no one is likely to leave early, the final day includes Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula, South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz, Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, and LSU Coach Nick Saban.

That is one reason not every member of the media will participate. Not even close. You think turnout for municipal elections is poor? The All-SEC and order of finish ballots usually amount to less than 10 per cent of those registered. But some don't feel qualified to make an assessment until having heard from all 12 head coaches. Moreover, even having heard from them all, a conscientious voter would need a little time to make comparisons to form a decision.

(Just for the record, the meetings begin on Tuesday with Auburn Coach Tommy Tuberville, Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson, Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt and Florida Coach Ron Zook. Wednesday's line-up is Mississippi State Coach Sylvester Croom, Georgia Coach Mark Richt, Mississippi Coach David Cutcliffe, and Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks.)

Finally, the SEC has already influenced those who would vote by issuing a pre-season All-SEC team as selected by the coaches. That team–three deep actually, offense, defense, and special teams–was announced late last week. And if you saw those teams and were surprised at some of the selections, know you this: it is not likely that any SEC head coach took one second to fill in a ballot. That work probably was done by the sports information director, perhaps by a graduate assistant or intern.

I won't be filling in a ballot. It would be easy enough to ink in Carnell Williams as a running back. Indeed, there are statistics to back up the vote for a number of positions–yards rushing, passing, receiving and punting; tackles and interceptions. But who are the All-SEC guard candidates? I've always believed an offensive lineman with a good personality, capable of giving the writers a funny line, is a lock for all-star reward if he can just hang on to his starting job.

Roger Shultz was a fine center for Alabama and might have made All-SEC just on his merits. But after Alabama defeated Tennessee in Knoxville in 1990, Shultz assured himself of honors when in the post-game interviews he told Ray Melick of the Birmingham Post-Herald, "We should pay property taxes on this place."

I've been looking at pre-season polls and wondering about how much stock to put in them. I wonder if some of those voting have taken time to look at things like "strength of schedule" and "players lost and returning."

For instance, I can understand picking LSU to win the SEC Western Division. After all, the Bengal Tigers won the national championship last year. But has anyone noticed that LSU will have a new quarterback this year? And that in a four-week span LSU will play road games at Auburn, Georgia, and Florida?

Arkansas is picked by some as a "surprise team," and picked high in the SEC Western Division by a few. If the Razorbacks are a contender it will be more than a surprise. It would be shocking beyond words. Yes, the Hogs have their quarterback returning. But, hello!?!? Good as he is, doesn't Matt Jones need some help? He is the only offensive starter returning. So the defense will hold the fort while the offense catches up, right? Well, they'll do it without Tony Bua and Caleb Miller and Jimarr Gallon, and five other departed defensive starters.

Many are predicting the second game of the year will be pivotal for Alabama and Mississippi. Well, the Rebels can claim a lot of returning starters on offense, but almost any reasonable observer would notice one fairly substantial loss. Ole Miss has gone most decades without an SEC championship, and most years has not been close to a contender. They had their chance with their greatest quarterback since Archie Manning, but now Eli Manning has gone, too.

I spend a lot of time looking at the schedules before deciding how I think games will come out. For instance, Mississippi–with a new quarterback–will open the season September 4 against a Memphis team that is always inspired playing the Rebels. It doesn't help Ole Miss that Memphis is expected to have one of its best teams. Meanwhile, that opening weekend, Alabama–which returns its starting quarterback–will be playing Utah State, a team that was 3-9 in the Sun Belt Conference last year.

Speaking of Mississippi and schedules, this is an unusual year. Tennessee will not have an open date before playing Alabama on October 23. The Vols will play at Mississippi the previous week.

Only a handful of SEC teams were given open dates before playing the Crimson Tide this year. (And, yes, we have duly reported the official SEC statement that the extraordinary frequency of this situation in previous years was not intended to be unfair to Alabama.) LSU is the only SEC team that will not play a game the week before meeting Alabama. Some teams were given an open date, but filled that date with non-conference games. They are Arkansas (Louisiana-Monroe), Kentucky (Ohio), Mississippi (Memphis), and South Carolina (Troy State). Some teams have SEC games, including Tennessee (Ole Miss), Auburn (Georgia), and Mississippi State (Kentucky).

Alabama has open dates (insofar as SEC-assigned games) before four of its eight league games, although three of those were filled with non-conference opponents. In addition to Utah State prior to Mississippi, the Tide plays Western Carolina prior to Arkansas, Southern Miss prior to Tennessee, and is off the week before Mississippi State. Alabama goes eight weeks into the season before getting an open date. Auburn goes nine weeks.

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