“Predictions are hard, especially about the future”, so said Yogi Berra. Since I have done so marvelously well at predicting the economic and financial future of the civilized world (i.e., that it would crash all over again by the witching date on the Mayan calendar, in December 2012, though I didn’t use the Mayan’s as justification for my premonitions), I decided that I should put my impressive capacity to see into the future to work at predicting the outcome of football contests. Football is, sadly enough, easily the only game I’ve ever loved, and might be the only thing I’ve ever loved doing.
Because I am from a state in the heart of college football’s premier conference and I only really follow with any sort of diligence the teams that play within it, I’ll stick to the Southeastern Conference. Besides, if I get the SEC right, the chances are that whatever obtains will go a long way toward predicting the national champion, as all but one of the last seven BCS championships have gone to a team from the SEC. (In one case, to a team from the SEC which didn’t even win the SEC championship—Alabama in 2011 beat LSU, the SEC champion, for the BCS title).
I’m waiting until now to make my predictions because, as otherwise insightful as I normally am, I don’t much see how anyone can tell in college football which team will be good from one year to the next until they’ve played a few games (which makes preseason and early season rankings are meaningless), and that is especially so when so many of them get new quarterbacks, as happened in the league this year. The only constant on a college team from year to year is the head coach, and even head coaches are routinely changed. But by this time of the new season, a couple of games into the conference schedule, it’s usually fairly obvious which teams are contenders and which are pretenders. So, taking my alma mater first, and really only because it’s first in alphabetical order, here goes:
The Crimson Tide, sad to say, are this year a pretender. After winning three of the last five BCS championships, they have forgotten how to play to win, and now only know how to play not to lose, which is a surefire strategy for doing just that. The Tide might lose four SEC games before the season is through, putting them right at the middle of the SEC West. After losing to Ole Miss Saturday, they stand a good chance of losing to Texas A & M, Mississippi State and Auburn. They could win any of those games, too, but they will all be close games and the Tide doesn’t know how to win close games anymore. They just don’t have the fire in the belly or the belief in the heart. This is apt be a long season for Bama fans, ‘cause all those teams Bama crushed so many consecutive times in lately reestablishing their dominance of the SEC are smelling blood in the water (Bama has almost twice as many SEC championships, 23, as the next two on the list combined—Tennessee and LSU, at 13 and 11, respectively). Bama won’t make this SEC championship number 24. It is, as Saban observed last year, a victim of its own success.
It looks like Auburn this year will be a real contender, and not a flukey one as some folks last year claimed (me included). At my job clerking for a local law firm several years ago, I one day had a guy aggressively shove me like he wanted to fight because I said that most people outside of the state of Alabama didn’t even know that Auburn is in the state of Alabama. I had just returned from a decade away from the state, serving in the Army and going to law school, and so felt pretty certain in my observation. But still, I couldn’t believe things had gotten so ridiculous with the rivalry. And I figure it’s still true today. But it doesn’t matter. Auburn’s team last year was no fluke. It was very good, but also was exceptionally lucky on occasion, as any championship team must be. This year’s team is better than last year’s. It won’t need luck to run the tables, even though the schedule is no cakewalk (as I’m writing about sports—I’ll mix my gd metaphors like stew if I want to). It’ll just have to keep playing to win, and will have to fastidiously ignore its newspaper clippings once everyone jumps from the Bama bandwagon to Auburn’s. Auburn faces perhaps its toughest remaining test this Saturday at Mississippi State. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.) Unless something untoward happens, it should dispense fairly easily with State and be on its way to its second SEC championship in as many years, and a shot at a national title. Nobody will care exactly which state it’s from if the Gus Bus keeps rolling.
Arkansas is back from the dead. It hasn’t won a conference game since October of 2012, but it is playing better football. Is it playing well enough to beat Bama Saturday? Doubtful, but possible. The problem with Arkansas is that, though it is playing better football, so is everyone else playing better football in the SEC West, except Bama and LSU, and they’re still not as bad as Arkansas. And the only remaining non-division games it has are Georgia and Missouri. Ouch! Maybe it can bag a win from Bama, LSU or Missouri. It’s hard to see how it has a chance to do so anywhere else. Even playing better, it still may post another 0-8 SEC record, especially if it falls at home Saturday against Alabama.
Whew, these Gators are stinky bad. The Tide, even in its weakened state, simply annihilated them. Alabama’s offense was responsible for all 63 points scored that day in Tuscaloosa—the 42 Alabama put on the board and another 21 on Florida’s side of the ledger that were directly attributable to Bama’s worsening case of turnoveritis (which cost them the game in Oxford last week). Florida is, however, at the moment, undefeated in the SEC East, eking out victories over Kentucky (in overtime) and Tennessee (by a point). This week they have LSU, a game which is only occasionally played nowadays because of the divisional split, but until lately would have had significant championship implications anytime it was. Now it’s a game of also-rans, something like an Ole Miss-Vandy game in a normal season. If Florida ekes out a victory over LSU, they’ll sport a 3-1 SEC record halfway through the season. Who knows then, they might get lucky at Georgia and South Carolina and bring home a divisional championship. It won’t matter. They aren’t even in the same league (metaphorically speaking of course) with Auburn, who should win the West and make short work of whoever limps to the top in the East.
Georgia doesn’t make sense. It opened by annihilating Clemson (a traditional rival that gave Florida State all it wanted when playing them later in the season), and then a couple of weeks later lost to South Carolina, a team that got clobbered by Texas A & M to open its season, and recently lost to Missouri and Kentucky. What gives? Georgia has one of the most talented teams in the conference this year, like it almost always has, and has easily the best running back in the league in Todd Gurley, but having all that talent hasn’t counted for much for Georgia lately. Mark Richt, Georgia’s head coach, seems to routinely do the leastest with the mostest, just the opposite of what a good coach should do. And Gurley just got suspended indefinitely. At least Richt had the good sense to hire Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State for his defensive coordinator. Pruitt was Saban’s cornerbacks coach under defensive coordinator Kirby Smart when he was at Alabama, then spent last year at Florida State as head coach Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator, so he’s got championship rings for four of the last five seasons. (Disclosure, I personally know Jeremy and his family—he’s my wife’s cousin. The family is one of the finest you’d ever meet, especially his dad, Dale, who has been coaching high school football up on Sand Mountain in the northeast corner of Alabama for about the last 40 years or so). If Georgia will routinely show up to play, and Jeremy’s defense can work its magic like it did in FSU’s championship run last year, there is no team on its schedule it can’t beat, including Auburn, which it might get to play twice, if as I expect, Auburn and Georgia win out in their divisional contests.
Kentucky barely lost to Florida in its SEC opener, rolled over Vandy a couple weeks later, and came from behind to beat South Carolina last week. Kentucky is the Arkansas of the SEC East, except that it will win a few more games this year than Arkansas (it has already won two) because the East is just not that good. Kentucky is playing much better under new coach, Mark Stoops (yes, the brother of Bob Stoops, head coach of Oklahoma). LSU and Mississippi State are the remaining non-division games—expect a split, beating LSU and losing to Mississippi State, though it might give State all it wants. But with the way Kentucky is playing, it could actually win out in the East, over Missouri, Georgia and (easily) Tennessee. Kentucky is my dark horse to win the East, if Georgia forgets again that it must be more than just talented in order to win.
Wow. It’s been awhile since the Bayou Bengals have been this bad. Auburn’s Tigers crushed them last week. But they might bounce back this week against a defanged Gator team. (Incidentally, I wonder which beast would actually win in a contest between a gator and a tiger—my money would be on the tiger, but then I’ve always admired tigers as the most beautiful of God’s predatory creatures). Even if they do, Kentucky is not apt to show them any mercy. And neither will Ole Miss, Alabama, or Texas A & M. They might beat Arkansas, for their only victory in the SEC. Then they can say about Arkansas what Alabamians routinely say about Mississippi, “Thank God for Arkansas”, because Arkansas will keep them from being last. LSU is the latest iteration of proof that what Bear said is true–starting a freshman quarterback in the SEC is worth at least two losses.
What to say about State? It’s for real, not a fluke. And Dak Prescott is as good a quarterback for State as Cam Newton was for Auburn in 2010. He just might take them all the way. But I don’t think so. I think they’ll lose Saturday to Auburn, but will run the tables after that. Which will mean a nice bowl game for the Bulldogs, but no SEC championship. If by some miracle Mississippi State can manage to beat Auburn, and all the rest heading into the Egg Bowl (which they should, if they can beat Auburn), the Egg Bowl (the game between State and Ole Miss at the end of the season) will be as big as last year’s Iron Bowl. Imagine that.
Missouri’s season hinges on what they do in a couple weeks against Georgia at home. If they can win that one, they could again become a dark horse, like last year, for the SEC East championship. But I think their run last year had more to do with the weakness of the East than with the quality of the team. And the East may be marginally better this year. Mizzou has only A & M and Arkansas left on the West portion of its schedule, so shouldn’t have much trouble with a tie-breaker. But first it has to beat Georgia, and then a week later, Florida. Even Tennessee could be problematic this time. I figure Mizzou ending at about 500 in the SEC.
Who would’ve thunk that Ole Miss and Mississippi State would be tied in the AP rankings at number three going into the season’s seventh week? But there it is. Ole Miss, however, is not as good as Mississippi State. Alabama’s lackadaisical defense made Bo Wallace look good, but he’s not. He’s not in the same league as Dak Prescott. Ole Miss, a school that doesn’t know how to phonetically spell the way ‘old’ is pronounced in the South (it should be Ol’ Miss, not Ole Miss, unless the school is celebrating its Spanish heritage, which actually doesn’t exist, unless you count Hernando De Soto’s sixteenth century explorations), could, imaginably, run the tables and win out. But it won’t. Because it’s been here so many times before and has always managed to find a way to disappoint. And one victory over Alabama, where the Tide basically gave them the game through turnovers and stupid penalties, but was far and away the more talented team on the field, does not an SEC championship make. Not even if the goalposts get torn down. The University of Ole’ Mississippi will lose at least a couple of games, probably to State and Auburn, maybe even to Tennessee and LSU.
The Gamecocks are as inexplicable as Georgia. How do you get spanked by a mediocre A & M team, and then beat a very good Georgia team, only to lose to Missouri and Kentucky? It is South Carolina’s bad fortune that they have to play Auburn on the plains this year, which might ironically end up sealing their fate in the SEC East this year. At 2-3 in the East so far (they also beat Vandy), the Gamecocks will have to beat Tennessee and Florida, and probably Auburn, to have any shot of a trip to the SEC championship game. But they just aren’t that good. South Carolina is another team without a proven quarterback, just like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Vanderbilt—a list of the dogs of the SEC, no doubt, and its not an accidental coincidence. It is really hard to win in the SEC without a solid performer at the quarterback position.
The Tennessee Volunteers have the second best overall winning percentage among SEC schools, and have won the second most championships in the conference (behind Alabama, in both instances). But that hasn’t mattered much lately. They have become something of the Michigan of the conference, a former powerhouse that has sadly forgotten how to win. They have been nothing less than horrible for at least five or so years now, ever since Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee team almost denied Alabama the first of this latest run of national championships save a couple of blocked field goals by Mount Cody that fine October afternoon. The Alabama-Tennessee rivalry since then, once the premier rivalry in the league, has been a boring beat down by the Tide. But maybe not this year. The Tide is not that good and Tennessee seems to be playing better football. It will surely beat Vandy this year, but maybe not Kentucky or Missouri. But it is one of those sharks smelling Alabama blood in the water about now. Tennessee would like to beat Alabama more than it would like to beat anyone, and Tennessee fans know that old faithful among Alabama fans hate Tennessee more than they hate even Auburn. It might just happen for Tennessee this year.
Texas A & M
The Aggies started the year overrated, after their big victory over South Carolina, which in hindsight seems more indicative of the different quality levels of the two SEC divisions than the relative quality of the two teams. A & M wasn’t that good and South Carolina wasn’t that bad. But A & M really isn’t as good as advertised. They’re a mediocre team, quite typical of the Southwest Conference from which they migrated a couple of years ago, able to light up the scoreboard but playing Swiss cheese defense. SWC contests were always scorefests, and the SEC has become more similar to them, but there still runs a deep strain of defense in the SEC. Like Bear said a long time ago and the conference internalized, you can’t lose if you don’t get scored on. A & M will likely lose at least three more games, putting them at the middle of the SEC West pack. If they can manage to beat Alabama, that will probably keep them out of the bottom half of the division.
Vanderbilt is back to being Vandy this year. They won’t win an SEC game, finishing as they so often have, dead last in the conference and in their division. They really should look the East–to the ACC. They still wouldn’t win any championships there, but they might occasionally have a superficially competitive run of seasons.
Bama’s days of dominance over SEC football (and consequently of all of collegiate football) ended in one really long second at Auburn last season. It will take the Tide another few years of also-running and outright losing before it rekindles the championship flames.
In the power vacuum of Bama’s demise, it is still undetermined which team, if any, will step into to become the team to beat, but Auburn appears to have the inside track, at least until SEC defenses figure out Malzahn’s offense.
For this season, it’ll be Auburn vs. Georgia in Atlanta for the league championship game, perhaps after Georgia beats Auburn in the regular season to avenge last season’s miracle play. But Georgia won’t beat ‘em twice in one season. Auburn wins the SEC and most likely, the National Championship, if recent history is any guide as to which conference the national champion will come from.