LITTLE ROCK — Preview or review media predictions in the SEC, the post-mortem choice saved a know-it-all columnist from embarrassment.
A close vote for No. 1 was expected in both divisions; instead, LSU and Georgia were run-away winners. If some voters were going for shock value, they succeeded.
Auburn received almost as many No. 1 votes as Arkansas in the Western Division and Ole Miss got one. Without a proven quarterback and with two new coordinators, Auburn won’t finish better than fourth. Starting over on several fronts, the Rebels will be hard-pressed to escape the cellar.
On the other side, I’m not sure which is more surprising — the dozen No. 1 votes for Florida or the four for Tennessee. The two first-place ballots for Missouri make more sense than the votes for the Vols, who won one league game last year and are a so-so season away from looking for a new coach.
Essentially, the voters ignored the departure of Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell and decided the schedule overwhelmingly favored the Bulldogs over the Gamecocks. Georgia had 132 first-place votes, 60 more than South Carolina.
In the Western Division, it was LSU 139, Alabama 72. I thought the voters might measure Les Miles against Nick Saban, factor in quarterback A.J. McCarron, and pick the Crimson Tide. In effect, the voters either decided that junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger will get it done at quarterback or that the Tigers are so talented they can win even if he is less than expected.
Nothing emerged during the three days of babble in Birmingham that changed my opinion of any of the 14 teams.
If the Western Division was a seven-horse race at Oaklawn Park, I’d pass on a win ticket, conceding there was no way to beat both of the heavy favorites, and purchase a trifecta ticket with Arkansas to finish third. Other than Alabama and LSU, Arkansas is the only team with the slightest chance of winning a division title. That said, I don’t believe the Razorbacks can beat one of the top two and sweep the rest of the games. Question marks at receiver and on defense have been recited ad nauseam.
Between the third-place Razorbacks and last-place Ole Miss, you can throw a blanket over Auburn, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M. MSU gets the nod based on easier opponents from the East — Tennessee and Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt and Georgia for Auburn and Florida and Missouri for the Aggies.
There is more potential for volatility in the Eastern Division. Georgia and South Carolina are not sure things for one and two and Florida, Missouri, and Vanderbilt can crack the top three.
Until Crowell was arrested with a gun, Georgia had the edge because of a versatile offense and the schedule. The Bulldogs have Ole Miss and Auburn from the West while South Carolina has Arkansas and LSU. A year ago, Georgia’s opponents were 4-12 in the SEC and the Gamecocks’ foes were 14-2.
Georgia’s Aaron Murry is the No. 2 quarterback in the league behind Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, but South Carolina’s Connor Shaw is a dual threat and running back Marcus Lattimore might be the best in the league.
Very good last year, Florida’s defense will be even better if the revamped offense runs the ball as promised. The schedule is stacked against Missouri with both Georgia and South Carolina in September. To prove it has turned the corner, Vanderbilt must win a game like the one it lost to Arkansas in 2011.
In the West, the champion is unlikely to lose more than one conference game. In the East, 6-2 is likely to get a share of the title.
In absentia, my uncounted ballot:
—LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss.
—South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.