sports (2006-32)

Media picks may be a good omen for UT football

No. 3 with a Bullet

by Tony Basilio

We spent the better part of this space last week comparing UT’s football program to a pummeled boxer receiving a standing eight count. Since then, even though they haven’t played a game, UT got great news last week. The Vols were an afterthought at the SEC Football Media Days in Birmingham.

Bobby Knight once described his disdain for sportswriters/media people in this way: “You guys love to act like you’re so important because of what you do. Well, I learned to write in grade school when I was a little boy. And then I moved on.” While it is true that the recent media meetings were populated with all types of newsies, it seems like the print guys are most likely to fill out a ballot selecting their pre-season picks. Who else but a beat writer/print guy could get all wrapped up in who the second team All-SEC left guard is? It has to be print guys. Selecting teams and potential conference champions gives them something outstanding to write about—themselves.

For some reason the media makes a big deal of the selections each year. Radio shows fawn and column inches flow on who the ’Bama beat reporter in Gadsden believes will win the SEC East, West, and ultimately the league title. This annual guessing-game tied to an event as inane as the SEC’s annual self-indulgent lovefest wouldn’t be so painful if it weren’t so profane. In the last 14 years, the working media covering the SEC has gotten it right only twice. That is, picking both divisional champions. Only one time in the past decade and a half did the media kick down the collective door and foresee both divisional champions in the league as well as the overall winner in the SEC Championship game.

With that trend, it’s probably a safe bet to scratch Auburn off the list of league contenders. Not only did Auburn get the Judas kiss from the SEC media, it was slobbered on like a middle-school girl under the stairwell. The Tigers drew a record number 73 (out of 104) votes as the eventual conference champion. Auburn was such a resounding choice that it had over six times the number of votes as the second most popular choice Florida. The Gators received only 11 votes in their quest for pre-season immortality.

Now it’s up to Tennessee, who only received two votes (out of 104) to make the trend hold up. The Vols were virtually forgotten about by the league media, coming in as the choice to hold down the third spot in the East (behind Florida and Georgia). A cursory look inside the numbers shows fourth choice South Carolina closer to UT than the Vols are to Georgia. This is great news!

Ready for more glad tidings? Tennessee is so far off the SEC media’s radar that the Vols actually trail Arkansas (eight to five) in the number of Pre-Season 1st, 2nd and 3rd team All-Conference selections. Arkansas is picked for fourth in the West! Tennessee’s only first teamers are offensive lineman Arron Sears and senior defensive lineman Justin Harrell. 

Ron Higgins, a talented columnist from the Memphis Commercial Appeal (who reported on the event for my radio show so I didn’t have to go—thank God for Ron), has an interesting theory on why the league media can’t seem to get it right. Higgins, who has been attending the league’s annual gathering for over 25 years, says expecting the unexpected is the norm.

“It’s because you base a lot of stuff on the previous year. And the truth is every time you think you have it figured out, you don’t. That’s the SEC. You have injuries, guys going to nightclubs at 4 in the morning and getting injured (SEC’s No. 1 running back Darren McFadden), and you just never know what’s going to go down. Games that you think teams have no chance of losing, they do. It never ends,” Higgins says.

Higgins believes the off-the-field incidents have a bearing on how the season plays out. “It’s like the thing at UT; how can you account for a lame brain (Marsalous Johnson) who pulls an Uzie during a road-rage incident? It’s almost like on any team you have to start accounting for the number of returning lettermen who have been arrested. If enough of these pile up, it affects things. Look at UT last year; it becomes an attitude. That’s why you need to squash these guys like bugs.”

Like me, Higgins believes that last year was an aberration. “I think Phillip Fulmer learned a lesson. And that’s you have to be more of a coach than a father figure. It’s your job and they have a job to do. And if they aren’t going to do their job, fire them. I think Cutcliffe will help with attention to detail. I believe if you clean up the mess off the field, the attention to detail will be greater and you win more games. UT will be better this year.”

If you don’t believe Higgins or yours truly, believe the SEC media. They pick the Vols for third in the East. That’s great news to a staggering football program.

Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.