Scheduling difference in SEC races

By By Stan Torgerson / sports columnist
Aug. 27, 2002
The basic requirements for a successful football season include talent and coaching. But there's a third factor, although fans are more inclined to look at the first two when working themselves into their usual preseason optimism.
Who you play and when you play them are equally important.
That was never more true than this unusual 12-game season. Being one deep at key positions won't cut it through 12 games spread over three months. There's the injury factor, and fatigue is bound to set it.
So taking talent, coaching and schedule into consideration here's what my crystal ball says as we go into the 2002 season.
SEC WEST
(1) LSU: This is a shaky vote because this is a division in which any of the six teams could win it. The Tigers lost QB Rohan Davy and WR Josh Reed to the NFL and those two were the heart and soul of last year's team. Their schedule opens with Virginia Tech, and we're certain coach Nick Saban wishes it didn't.
But overall the schedule eases off after that with The Citadel, Miami (Ohio) Mississippi State and Louisiana-Lafayette. It makes for a 4-1 or 5-0 start before the Tigers get to Florida, South Carolina and Auburn back-to-back. Then another open date before playing Kentucky, Alabama. Ole Miss and Arkansas.
Predicted finish: 9-3.
(2) Ole Miss: We keep reading and hearing about the Rebels improvement on the defensive side of the ball. If true, Ole Miss can make a run for the division title. Goodness knows they'll be able to score. The non-conference schedule is Grade C again, at best, with Louisiana-Monroe, Memphis, Texas Tech and Arkansas State. While the Rebs drew Florida and Georgia from the East they also were fortunate enough to have Vanderbilt on their list.
Vandy and the four non-conference victims should give Ole Miss five wins before they get into the meat of the schedule. They have an open date before the Florida game, a pushover before Alabama in Arkansas State and another open date prior to playing LSU in Baton Rouge. What could be better than that?
Predicted finish: 9-3.
(3) Alabama: I really think Alabama's season could well ride on their Sept. 7 game at Oklahoma. Right now the Tide is in an "us-against-the-world-and-we'll-show-them" frame of mind. But if Oklahoma pounds them, a lot of that bravado will leave and if Southern Miss sneaks up on them two weeks later we think it could be a long year for Bama.
They have an open date before playing Ole Miss at home, but that's followed the next week by Tennessee at Knoxville.
Predicted finish: 8-4.
(4) Auburn: The Tigers have absolutely the worst schedule in the league. They open at Southern Cal this coming weekend, play what should be two easy ones in Western Carolina and Vanderbilt, then face Mississippi State at Starkville followed by a visit from Syracuse.
They then have an open date but it's followed by seven straight games, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Louisiana-Monroe, Georgia and Alabama. Brrrr.
Predicted finish: 6-6.
(5) Mississippi State: Forget their miserable 3-8 2001 season. Jackie Sherrill has 20 starters returning including quarterback Kevin Fant who was given his chance in the last three games of last year and performed well. But how did the powers that be at Starkville decide they should open the season with Oregon at Oregon? Later in their non-conference season they play Troy State which beat them last year and Memphis which could this year.
Predicted finish 6-6.
(6) Arkansas: Their record will probably be better than their team thanks to a pussycat schedule. Four non-conference games against Boise State, South Florida, Troy State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Eight games at home either Fayetteville or Little Rock and only four on the road. How does it get any better than that?
Predicted finish 6-6.
SEC EAST
(1) Tennessee: We'll go along with the consensus which is Tennessee has excellent talent and a lot of it. The Vols have Miami (Florida) on their schedule late in the season but their other three non-conference games are certain wins. They do not play either LSU or Ole Miss out of the West so that's in their favor.
Predicted finish 10-2.
(2) Florida: They will live or die with QB Rex Grossman. If he stays healthy all year the Gators and the Vols will likely decide the division championship in early season, Sept. 21. Yes, Steve Spurrier is gone but he didn't play a minute last year. He left a lot of players who did.
Predicted finish 9-3.
(3) Georgia: I've been burned more times by this team than I care to remember. Year-after-year their recruiting classes are rated by some in the nation's top five and year-after-year they prove to be overrated.
But I don't like their schedule, which gives them an open date after their first game against Clemson and then has them playing 10 weeks in a row without a break, including all their eight conference games. There are going to be a lot of aches and bruises in there that will need healing.
Predicted finish 8-4.
(4) South Carolina: O.K., admittedly South Carolina lost a lot from last year but they still have the great motivator, Lou Holtz. But I do like their schedule which does not have them playing top caliber opposition on successive weekends, although Gamecock fans will argue Virginia-Georgia would qualify. USC does meet LSU and Tennessee in a row but there's an open date between the two games.Predicted finish 7-5.
(5) Vanderbilt: This perennial cellar dweller may move up to fifth place in 2002. They have 16 starters returning and a new coach who knows how to win, but there is still a lack of quality football players. Let's face it, the last time Vandy had a winning record overall, and in conference play, was 1982. It won't be this year either.
Predicted finish 3-9.
(6) Kentucky: The Wildcats have a talented quarterback in Jared Lorenzen and not much else. They are also so young. Only six seniors are on their offensive two-deep and nine seniors on the defensive first two teams. They should be favored to beat Texas-El Paso and possibly Indiana, but who else? Maybe Vanderbilt.
Predicted finish 3-9.
Now let the games begin.

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