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Do they even have to play in 2002?

By By Stan Torgerson / sports columnist
Aug. 8, 2002
I'm wondering whether there's any reason to play the 2002 season. The writers, broadcasters and sports information directors at the recent SEC media days decided Tennessee will be a runaway winner in the eastern half of the Southeastern Conference, LSU will win the western half and the Vols will take the overall title.
USA Today ran its Top 25 story last week and said the coaches have decided Tennessee, is the 5th best team in the country, Florida is the 7th, Georgia the 11th, LSU 13th and South Carolina 22nd.
Read that again you Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama fans. Does that represent a balance of power shift or what? According to the coaches who voted in the newspaper's poll, five of this league's teams are among the country's best and four of them are in the East. Only LSU allows us in the west to hold our heads high.
Since the West teams will each have to play three games against the other side of the league there's obviously trouble in River City, to borrow a phrase from The Music Man.
Let's see. Ole Miss has to play Florida and Georgia along with Vanderbilt. Two sure losses there. Mississippi State has South Carolina and Tennessee on their list plus Kentucky. Another two defeats before the first kickoff. Alabama will have play Georgia and Tennessee, plus lowly Vanderbilt. But if I read the poll correctly the Tide is already down two. Mighty LSU, the pick of the Western litter also has to face those giants Florida and Georgia before they get their breather against Kentucky. As for Arkansas, on two Saturday's they'll look up and see Tennessee running out on the field in Knoxville, no less, and South Carolina sitting on the Gamecock's home side at Columbia. Mercifully, the league gave them Kentucky for game #3.
That leaves Auburn. In addition to Southern Cal and Syracuse non-conference they drew Florida and Georgia from the SEC East along with Vandy. With the strength of the conference all on the other side of the league the best any Western team can hope for is 9-2 even if they win all their other games. Isn't that the way you read it?
Of course, all of that is nonsense. It's part of the preseason hype, the guessing game that occurs every August. There are a lot of fumbles, injuries, bad calls and miserable weather afternoons between now and Nov. 30 when the regular season ends.
This football fortune-telling would be harmless if the fans of each school didn't take it so seriously.
Let's take Mississippi State, a team that is probably underrated. Their game with Tennessee is in Starkville. Is it possible the Dogs might slip up on the Vols and beat them? Of course it is.
Do you think the UT fans will sit quietly and say "We did our best, Mississippi State was just just better than we were today." Of course they won't. Have you forgotten how much heat coach Phillip Fulmer received from orange and white fans when they lost to LSU in last year's SEC championship game?
In 10 years at Tennessee Fulmer has won 95 games and lost only 20. That's 83 percent. In conference games his record is 61-13, also 83 percent. That's Bear Bryant level coaching. Last year his team went 11-2 but when the Vols lost 31-20 to the Tigers you would have thought Fulmer had forgotten everything he knew. The talk shows and newspaper columnists second guessed Fulmer from Knoxville to Memphis.
And that's the problem every coach faces when fans buy into the preseason prognosticators.
Ole Miss fans are convinced that Eli Manning can win them all, literally by himself. I still hear complaints that David Cutcliffe didn't turn Manning loose in the first half of last year's Auburn game and that's the reason the Rebels were beaten. Could have won it easily if Manning had been allowed to do his thing and Cutcliffe hadn't been so conservative.
Those second guessers seem to have forgotten that Auburn was in front 27-0 before the Rebels were even on the board and that Ole Miss fumbled three times and lost all three plus an interception which made it four turnovers.
To score Auburn only had to go 4 yards (FG), 28 yards (FG), 29 yards (TD) 15 yards (TD) and 59 Yards (TD). It might be possible to point fingers but I don't believe Cutcliffe coaches fumble technique. These things happen.
So do I believe Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are fine football teams? You darn right.
Do I believe LSU is the only good one in the SEC West? That Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Arkansas aren't? Of course not. Two of the last three conference champions were from the West, Alabama in 1999 and LSU last year. Florida won it in 2000.
Keep in touch and by Nov. 30 we'll see who's right. I like my chances better than any preseason poll.