The big game is upon us, as we kick off the 2018 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell. As I mentioned last week, I truly feel the sport has progressed beyond the point where the Classic is still ďany manís tournamentĒ (as Ray Scott once said), but has now been refined to a competition where only the most advanced anglers even stand a chance.

Well, sort of.

This year, weíre seeing more reporting, more interviews and more knowledge being passed on to the fan than ever before. I love it, but Iím careful to consider that hype may, in fact, reduce an anglerís chance to win the tournament, as pressure is often the deciding factor in big events. In fact, I predict all the extra chatter will eliminate a possible win for Hartwellís best competitor altogether.

So, letís dig in, and Iíll share with you my winning prediction for Classic 48.

First off, itís important to note that many of the competitors in this yearís tournament have a wealth of knowledge of Lake Hartwell, having competed in major events there in the past, most often during this very time of year, under almost exactly the same conditions. The most recent Classic held at Hartwell, however, was drastically different than our event this week, with much lower, colder water. There, you may recall Casey Ashley used a wealth of local knowledge to take down the title, relying on a deep-water underspin technique many of the other pros had never even heard of.

As you may have guessed by my opening, I predict Ashley may make a good showing, but will fall short of a repeat. Sure, Ashley is the only man in the field with multiple major wins on Hartwell (he also took the FLW title in 2014), but heís been overdrawn by the press and sponsors alike, not to mention his local fan base, and will find it impossible to restock prior to competition. Sometimes itís tough to be popular.

Speaking of which, we must always consider Kevin VanDam when talking Classic heroes. Currently, VanDam remains tied with Rick Clunn for most titles, but itís a common belief that VanDam will likely set a new record before itís all said and done. I strongly believe VanDam is the greatest bass tournament competitor of all time, but to be blunt, heís also getting old. Will that effect his ability to compete? While I donít see how it could, the numbers suggest that younger competitors are now performing far better than those over 40. In addition, I always feel VanDam is at his best when he discovers a unique pattern or winning lure that no one else tries. I think Hartwell will be relatively ďroutineĒ fishing, so Iím leaving Kong off my list this year.

Maybe itís Jason Christieís turn. Christie fits into the category of incredible anglers yet to win the big one, along with guys like Faircloth, Hackney and DeFoe. In addition, Christie has threatened numerous times at the Classic, and he won an FLW event on Hartwell in 2011. During that event, Christie fished in much of the manner heís likely to this week Ė just banging around with a spinnerbait tied to 25-pound line Ė and led wire to wire. But in previous interviews, Christie has admitted that he found magic water during that event, and the chances of doing so again are understandably slim.

Brent Ehrler likely sits in the same seat as Christie. He, too, has won on Hartwell before (2012 FLW), almost won the same tournament in 2011, and is just as good off the bank as on. Itís only a matter of time before Ehrler takes down the biggest titles in B.A.S.S, as he did on the FLW trail to launch his career. Remember, many veteran fans of tournament bass fishing regarded Ehrler as FLWís version of VanDam Ė superior, at times, to the rest of competition, capable of winning any tournament. Todayís Golden Boy of the sport, Ehrler made a run at the Classic title last year and remains competitive all across the country. Heíll be one to keep an eye on.

And what about Iaconelli? He seems to possess a lucky horseshoe when it comes to qualifying for the event, and heís notched top-10 finishes in each of the previous Classics on Hartwell. Iaconelli is adept at a number of techniques, but I think this particular tournament may overpower his play book. By that, Iím referring to lake characteristics Ė warming, rising water Ė playing into the hands of the big sticks.

Which is the biggest factor in my prediction of Bobby Lane as this yearís winner. Granted, maybe Iím swayed by the fact that Iíve always liked Bobby Lane. He just seems like the kind of guy youíd want to hang around with; maybe throw a few burgers on the grill on a Sunday, drink a beer or two.

But my vote reaches beyond that. It goes without saying that Lane is a monster around shallow cover and specializes in the pre-spawn bite. Laneís also got momentum Ė he took down two MLF titles recently, including the leagueís first World Championship, as well as a Bassmaster Open Ė and he seems to turn it up a notch for the Classic. Lane wonít get rattled, or at least wonít let on to being spooked, and should have enough room on Hartwell to move around.

But thereís one more factor that can drive Bobby Lane to the winnerís circle. Such may even coincide with our discussion last week of the heightened insight needed to win.

His brother.

Chris and Bobby Lane come from a tournament-fishing family. Theyíve each experienced the highs and lows of a career in fishing. But only Chris has won the Classic, and as a result, he elevated his career to an entirely different level. Iím not sure how that influences Bobby Ė perhaps it increases his drive; if nothing else, it gives him a bit of knowledge on what it really takes to claim the title.

Iím also confident that Bobby Lane will join his brother as a Classic champion one day. Why not this week?

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)