Newsroom clock tells Stan it's time!

On the wall of our TV newsroom is an electric sign perhaps four feet long and 2 1/2 high. It shows the days, hours and minutes before the kickoff that gets the 2004 football season underway.

Some of our guys program it along about the first of July and every day it flashes its message, "47 days, 10 hours, 43 minutes before kickoff. It ticks merrily away, counting down, turning up the heat of the discussions that always take place about my team or yours, the winners and the projected losers.

We don't set it to such games as Virginia Tech-USC played last week. As far as our crew is concerned the football season is not and will not be here until the SEC teams are in action.

As this is written the number of days is down to seven. Glory.

We're so close the newspapers are already publishing the point spread for Saturday, Sept. 4. Which brings up the age-old argument of whether it is better to play a patsy you can push all over the field and win big or is it advantageous to open against someone tough in order to get a truer yardstick of what you have and what you need to have.

Take this coming Saturday. LSU entertains Oregon State at Baton Rouge. The Tigers are 18 1/2 point picks. If you think I believe Oregon State can journey all the way from thge west coast, play in the always unfriendly atmosphere of Tiger Stadium and remain within 18 1/2 points of possibly the best team in the SEC you're wrong. Understand, I'm not wagering my first born great-grandchild on this but I simply do not believe it will be that close.

Then there's Auburn and Louisiana Monroe. The book says Auburn by 38. In truth it will be Auburn by whatever margin Tommy Tu"berville wants it to be--and considering the heat he's been under since his so-so 2003 season, I believe he will make every effort to beat the spread and keep Tiger bettors happy.

Alabama is 26 over Utah State at Tuscaloosa. Let me put it this way. If the Tide has to struglle to beat Utah State by 26 it will be another long season for Mike Shula and his kids. Utah State players have never seen an atmosphere such as the one they will encounter Saturday and there will be some heavy breathing among the visitors when they fully understand they are in one of college football's true hot spots.

Florida entertains Middle Tennessee. Maybe "entertains" is not the right word. The Gators are favored by 28 but in my book Middle Tennessee may be a bit better than expected and the Gators may have to sweat some to win by over four touchdowns.

Arkansas hosts New Mexico State and the Razorbacks are 21 point picks. You're not supposed to lose when you're a three touchdown favorite.

On Sunday, Tennessee will play UNLV on television. Phillip Fulmer has to find a quarterback and he should have plenty of time and opportunity to do so against the visiting Rebels. At least the bookies think so. They've made the Vols a 20 point choice.

I can't even find Georgia-Georgia Southern on the board. That tells me something.

But now we get down to the real football games where the issue is truly in doubt. One of those is Ole Miss and Memphis at Oxford. The Rebels are a slim 3-point choice and I'm convinced they're the favorite by a field goal only because of Jonathan Nichols. He is the best kicker in the country and when the odds makers make you only a field goal favorite it's because they think all else is equal. Last year the Tigers slipped up on the Rebs 44-34. I don't think that will happen this season. My pick is Ole Miss by 10, Jonathan Nichols three and one of the wide receivers seven. It's Michael Spurlock's inaugural start and I'm going to take everything I've heard about this young man at face value. Everything I've heard is that he's a player and I'm going with it.

I doubt if there's a better game on this first Saturday in September than South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Neither team will play one any more important this year. USC has to prove that they have regrouped and will be a factor in the Southeastern Conference this season, unlike those dreary 2002 and 2003 years. Vanderbilt has to convice the league, and the country, that coach Bobby Johnson knew what he was doing when he sacrificed last year by going 1-7 in the conference and 2-10 overall in order for his youthful players to gain on-the-job training that prepared them for 2004. The oddsmakers give South Carolina a five point edge and Lou Holtz would probably be happy to have it. But the result of this game will not only determine the future for each team, it may determine the future of each coach as well.

Another Sunday game is Louisville and Kentucky. The Wildcats are every bit as much a favorite to finish at the bottom of the SEC as Georgia and LSU are to finish at the top. Louisville is a traditional opponent, a team that has en joyed success in recent years and someone who will run out on their home field with blood in their eye. My suspicion is we will find out Kentucky is as bad as advertised next Saturday.

That leaves Mississippi State vs. Tulane. I think Sylvester Croom has gotten off to the most positive and emotional start of any coach to come into the SEC since Steve Sloan took over Ole Miss in 1978. I can still remember that first spring game in Oxford when over 26,000 fans showed up to cheer Sloan in the belief they had discovered a football messiah to lead the Red and Blue back to the glories of the John Vaught days. Well of course that didn't happen but that has nothing to do with what Croom may or may not achieve with the Bulldogs.

The fact is that just with the power of his personality and the hunger for a winner on the part of MSU fans and alumni, he has made believers out of every wearer of the maroon in the state. The book says MSU will win by 6 1/2 over the Green Wave. In my opinion Croom's kids and fans will be so high that Tulane doesn't have a chance. It is not an emotional level that can be maintained for 11 consecutive Saturdays but on Saturday No. 1 it will be a major factor in the outcome. The game is scheduled to be aired on ESPN2 at 5 p.m. CST. I have been known to find other things to do when Mississippi State is on TV. Not this Saturday. Give me a cold sixpack and leave me alone in front of the television.

And turn that sign off in the newsroom until next year. I don't want to know when this season ends.

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