BENAC: Breaking down the picks

Football season is always a thrill for us at the Alpena News and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the season is doing our expert picks. Few things in the sports section are as heavily read, scrutinized and debated amongst our readers.

The most common reaction I’ve observed from readers is the “how could they pick THAT team?” reaction. This usually happens when one or more of us picks against a local favorite.

Picking against local teams isn’t an easy choice, but creating accurate picks is an important aspect of the job. I, for one, take it very seriously. Unfortunately, this sometimes means picking against local teams.

For example, it was always difficult for me to choose against my home town Hillman team. Especially when I knew the boys so well from my substitute teaching days.

“Why’d you pick against us again Mr. Benac?” was a common refrain at last year’s volleyball games. The Hillman boys always attended these games (no doubt to watch their girlfriends play) and I never really had an easy answer for them.

“Well,” I’d say, running my hands through my hair awkwardly, “They’ve got that real good quarterback. I think you guys are good, but…” I could never quite come up with an answer that satisfied me.

“Don’t worry, we use it get us fired up,” they’d usually say. And funny enough, last year, almost every time I picked against Hillman, they won.

I guess I had a lot to learn about picking the right teams.

This year I actually came in first place in my picks, although it was a much tighter race than last year. James and Swami were nipping at my heels, but I was able to hold them off due to a few careful picks.

So, how do we go about making our picks every week during the football season? Well, follow me, dear reader, and you’ll find out.

First of all, James researches the upcoming games and picks the most relevant to our area. Alpena, Alcona, Atlanta, Hillman, Mio, Rogers City, Onaway and Posen always come first. He then print out lists of the games and gives one to me, Steve Schulwitz and himself. Swami gets an e-mail.

Generally, the picks are on my desk first thing on Monday. Finding the list, I then go to the Michigan High School Football website.

This site is amazing: it lists every team that has ever played in Michigan, its previous records and even includes school enrollment numbers.

First, I concentrate on the “gimme” games. Every week, there are games that are obviously one sided. We almost always universally agree on these games. They always get picked first, just to get them out of the way.

Others games are much more difficult to pick. Let’s take the Hillman-Mio game in the fourth week. I pick this one as an example because a) I was there and b) the numbers seemed to indicate a tight battle.

Mio’s Brad Rhoads was leading the area as a quarterback by that point, while Hillman’s Ty Jones was in second place. Both teams were 3-1, with big wins over tough teams.

In such a potentially tight match up, the next step is examining both teams’ opponents. This is important: blowing out a weak team isn’t anything compared to hanging tight with a tough team.

Hillman had beaten a strong Gaylord Saint Mary team in the first week, while Mio had only beaten weaker or struggling teams at that point.

Factoring in Mio’s rout by Whittemore-Prescott gave Hillman the slightest edge in my mind. I circled the Tigers and turned in my picks, confident in my choice.

Mio then went on to beat Hillman 47-26, in a game that, for various reasons, was nowhere near as close as anticipated. I wasn’t the only one on staff to choose Hillman, either.

The problem with relying on a website like Michigan High School Football, is that it only gives you the raw numbers. You don’t get the big picture on a team’s successes and failures, such as injuries, a nervous quarterback or a team that hadn’t quite jelled.

And that’s where it becomes so important to actually attend the games. You get a feel for a team and its abilities that you can’t get from numbers and statistics.

Posen was a good example of that principle in action. After the Vikings lost their two opening games, it was easy to suspect that they might not have the strongest season in 2013.

But a close examination of these loses reveals some truths about Posen that were hidden behind the numbers.

In its first game, Posen came within two points of beating Cedarville, after losing to it 54-14 last year. Its 42-40 loss showed the Vikings could hang with teams against whom they had struggled last year.

Its second game was a loss to Rapid River, but the Rockets are always one of the top eight-man teams, so it didn’t seem quite fair to hold that loss against the Vikings.

That said, I was still somewhat on the fence about Posen, especially in the third week when they faced Eben Junction Superior Central.

Superior Central had beaten Posen 61-40 last year and is always a tough team. But when I examined its 2013 numbers, I wasn’t so impressed. Yes, it had beaten Brimley 46-22, but lost 50-0 against Bellaire.

Granted, Bellaire was the number two eight man team last year, but the Vikings had put up more points in its first two games and seemed more competitive.

I tentatively chose Posen (the only expert to do so that week) and got the chance to cover the game that Friday. This gave me the chance to see whether or not my gamble paid off.

It did: Posen won 56-6.

It was easy to see why, too: quarterback Brandon Dietz and running back Nick Hincka were a dynamite running duo, that always seemed on the verge of huge gains.

After seeing the Vikings play (an advantage I had on the three other experts on staff), I picked Posen for two more weeks. The Vikings won these games and even picked out a surprise blowout of Bellaire.

A similar thing happened with Atlanta: it was hard to believe the Huskies could bounce back after losing its first three games.

However, after seeing Atlanta come within a touchdown of beating Baldwin, it was hard not to pick the Huskies for the rest of the season.

A lot of the same pure luck is involved: after all, in football, anything can happen on any given day. Heavily favored teams lose to the underdog who might not win another game all season.

In the end, the picks are simply a fun way to interact with our readers and give them our unofficial opinion on the season. They’re simply a way to get people talking and engaged in the season and even though our picks sometimes create controversy, they’re always a blast.