Later this month, the sports media will descend upon Hoover, Ala., for the 2019 edition of SEC media days.

This annual event is viewed by many as the official start of college football season, certainly in this part of the country. Preseason practice will begin shortly thereafter and actual games are getting closer with each day that slips by on the calendar.

While there is always plenty of coverage for coaches like Nick Saban, Dan Mullen, Jimbo Fisher, Ed Orgeron and Kirby Smart, the part I always anticipate is the media voting on who will win the SEC East and SEC West.

While I won’t be at SEC Media Days, set to begin July 15, here’s how my ballot would look.

SEC WEST

Alabama is always the safe and smart choice here. As long as Saban is coaching the Crimson Tide the program is not going to slip very much.

It is amazing how the program can overcome the loss of numerous players each year to the NFL and an almost complete turnover in assistant coaches. Many athletic directors and college presidents believe if an assistant works under Saban, then he is a great candidate for head coach at their school.

Some former Saban assistants have been more successful than others, and to date none have been able to defeat their former mentor when it comes to head-to-head matchups on the field.

Texas A&M has been making a lot of noise since the hiring of Fisher. Highly-ranked recruiting classes and state-of-the art facilities have many believing the Aggies are primed to challenge Alabama for the King of the West.

Mississippi State is a solid program but maybe not as strong since the departure of Mullen. LSU has great talent and Orgeron has shown he has grown as a head coach. He is no longer viewed as already having one foot out the door.

Auburn always seems to be on the verge of firing its head coach (a lot of that has to do with the overall success of Alabama under Saban). That is the storyline once again for the Tigers going into 2019.

Ole Miss continues to try and recover from the mess left by Hugh Freeze. With several sanctions still in place for the program don’t expect to hear much from the Rebels.

Arkansas is, well, awful. The team changed philosophies following the firing of Bobby Petrino to a power running attack for coach Bret Bielema (now coaching for the New England Patriots). After the firing Bielema as head coach, Arkansas hired Chad Morris whose offensive approach is a complete 360 from what was being used.

It is a dumpster fire right now for the Razorbacks and the fire department seems light years away.

So let’s go with Alabama to win the West, followed by Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss and Arkansas.

SEC EAST

In the East, there is little doubt Georgia will be the first choice on most of the media ballots. Florida, however, is continuing to improve under Mullen and had a 10-win season in 2018.

Tennessee appears, finally, to be getting back on solid ground under the direction of head coach Jeremy Pruitt. The Vols are improving as well and shouldn’t be considered a pushover any longer. The team’s overall talent base is getting stronger each year Pruitt leads the program.

Missouri is kind of the forgotten team in the East and in the entire SEC for that matter. At times we forget Missouri is even in the conference. The Tigers, as usual, will win a few and drop a few.

Kentucky had an outstanding season in 2018 with 10 victories. The Wildcats probably reached their ceiling, though, and will almost certainly slip some in 2019.

Vanderbilt plays strong defense but without an offensive scheme that makes up for its overall lack of talent depth, the Commodores will always struggle to win more than seven games. However, going to a bowl game is considered success.

There is always talk of South Carolina taking a step up for coach Will Muschamp, but there is a problem with that assumption. The issue is with the Gamecocks’ head coach. It still baffles me how Muschamp got another head coaching job in the SEC after he set Florida back years.

The lure of that part of the resume which says “coached for Nick Saban” can be blinding to some. Muschamp is proof of this.

In the East, I will go out on a limb and say Florida will win it, followed by Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and South Carolina. Mullen is a solid coach and did wonders at Mississippi State. He is not, as suggested by two Athens-based sports talk show hosts, overrated.

It should be noted, however, that the Gators may very well defeat Georgia but end up not being in Atlanta for the title game. Florida may beat the Bulldogs but then lose two other conference games. This would open the door for UGA. Still I’ll go with Florida which is certainly going against the grain of how other media members will vote.

Winder resident Chris Bridges is a former sports editor for the Barrow News-Journal. He is a two-time winner of the Furman Bisher Sweepstakes Award for sports journalism excellence. He welcomes feedback about this column at pchrisbridges@gmail.com.

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