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August 6, 2008
Dawgs & Gators lead the league
Georgia and Florida are rivals with much in common.
Both have a talented junior quarterback, a dynamic playmaker and a youthful-looking coach with a ridiculous career winning percentage.
One of them is also the hot Southeastern Conference team du jour. Which one depends on who's picking.
The Bulldogs have averaged a hair above 10 wins in coach Mark Richt's seven seasons, but they haven't added to the SEC's expanding trophy collection.
Might this be their year? Richt's peers think so, picking Georgia preseason No. 1 in the coaches poll. League media, on the other hand, picked Florida to win both the SEC East and the overall championship.
Tough crowd, this SEC.
The 'Dawgs will leave any politicking to the end of the year. They're already trotting out references to last September's Appalachian State win over Michigan.
The message: Beware Georgia Southern, the opening opponent.
"We can't listen to the hype and the media," Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. "We don't want to end up like Michigan last year losing to App State. We've got to learn from their mistake."
Games at South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU and Auburn are more dangerous. Not to mention the Florida rivalry across the state line in Jacksonville, intensified by the Bulldogs' end zone dance in last season's win.
Defending national champ LSU is getting overshadowed largely because, unlike Florida and Georgia, there's no proven quarterback on the roster. Ditto for Auburn, Tennessee and South Carolina.
LSU's Les Miles is the fifth current SEC coach to win a national title, and new Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino had a pair of one-loss seasons at Louisville. Not to mention Tommy Tuberville's unbeaten 2004 season at Auburn.
"To claim that many national championships among your group of coaches, it's kind of intimidating sometimes, I guess," Richt said.
Then again, he ranks fourth among active coaches by winning 79.1 percent of his games, right behind Meyer, No. 3 at 81.4 percent.
Florida and Georgia both have the bulk of their starters back, and each has at least one legitimate Heisman candidate.
The Bulldogs also have quarterback Matthew Stafford and a potentially dominant defense that returns nine starters from a group that held high-powered Hawaii to 10 points and forced six turnovers in the Sugar Bowl.
The Gators should be improved on defense, with eight starters back from a unit that ranked last in the SEC against the pass. Meyer, though, knows he has plenty of company among SEC teams with notions of a title.
"Once again, any given nine think they're going to play in a conference championship," he said. "I don't know if you see that anywhere else in America."
His quarterback is hungry for victories after the Gators followed up a national title by losing four games.
"I'd trade (the Heisman) for a national championship any day of the week," Tebow said after an offseason that included three mission trips to foreign countries. "It was a dream come true to win the Heisman, but it doesn't compare to a national championship."
A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:
GEORGIA -- Key players: QB Matthew Stafford, Jr.; RB Knowshon Moreno, So.; MLB Dannell Ellerbe, Sr.; CB Asher Allen, Jr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense.
Game Notes: Moreno emerged late last season, and the normally stoic Richt came out of his sideline shell. The result was a strong finish and a No. 2 final ranking. Moreno could have some help in the backfield from highly touted freshman Caleb King. Defense must replace SEC sack leader Marcus Howard.
FLORIDA -- Key players: QB Tim Tebow, Jr.; WR Percy Harvin, Jr.; DE Jermaine Cunningham, Jr.; LB Brandon Spikes, Jr. Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.
Game Notes: Tebow and Harvin shouldn't have to shoulder so much of the load. Redshirt freshman tailback Chris Rainey figures to get plenty of carries, along with USC transfer Emmanuel Moody. ... Defense ranked last in SEC yards passing, but three freshmen started last year, including hard-hitting safety Major Wright.
TENNESSEE -- Key players: QB Jonathan Crompton, Jr.; RB Arian Foster, Sr.; OT Anthony Parker, Sr.; S Eric Berry, So. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Game Notes: New offensive coordinator Dave Clawson has four starters returning on offensive line, including second-team All-American Parker. ... Berry and DE Robert Ayers lead defense that ranked 11th in SEC yards allowed last season.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- Key players: LB Jasper Brinkley, Sr.; WR Kenny McKinley, Sr.; S Emanuel Cook, Jr.; LB Eric Norwood, Jr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense.
Game Notes: Head ball coach Steve Spurrier turns to another quarterback, Tommy Beecher, and to son Steve Jr. for primary play calling duties. ... Brinkley returns after a medical redshirt and Ellis Johnson is the new defensive coordinator.
KENTUCKY -- Key players: WR Dicky Lyons, Sr.; RB Tony Dixon, Sr.; CB Trevard Lindley, Jr. Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense.
Game Notes: 'Cats vying for third straight bowl game. Must overcome huge losses on offense, including the loss of backfield stars Andre' Woodson and Rafael Little and receiver Keenan Burton.
VANDERBILT -- Key players: QB Mackenzi Adams, Jr.; CB DJ Moore, Jr.; WR George Smith, Sr. Returning starters: 3 offense, six defense.
Game Notes: Trying to avoid a 26th consecutive losing season ... The offense returns only three starters and none are linemen. Also, go-to receiver Earl Bennett is gone.
AUBURN -- Key players: RB Ben Tate, Jr.; CB Jerraud Powers, Jr.; DE Antonio Coleman, Jr.; Tray Blackmon, Jr. Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense.
Game Notes: Tailback U is switching to a fast-paced spread offense under new coordinator Tony Franklin. Either Chris Todd or Kodi Burns will be running it. ... The defense should be formidable again under new boss Paul Rhoads, led by linemen Coleman and Sen'Derrick Marks and LB Blackmon.
LSU -- Key players: WR Demetrius Byrd, Sr.; OT Ciron Black, Jr.; DT Ricky Jean-Francois, Jr.; LB Darry Beckwith, Sr. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
Game Notes: Les Miles still has a talent-laden roster, but plenty of uncertainty at quarterback. Andrew Hatch and Jarrett Lee are vying for job. ... Defense can just reload despite losing Glenn Dorsey and other stars. Doug Mallory and Bradley Peveto are co-defensive coordinators, replacing Bo Pelini.
ALABAMA -- Key players: QB John Parker Wilson, Sr.; RB Terry Grant, So.; S Rashad Johnson, Sr.; MLB Rolando McClain. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Game Notes: Year 2 for coach Nick Saban will feature a veteran quarterback and offensive line. Other positions will need help from youngsters, especially receiver and linebacker. ... Focus will be on finishing games and the season better after losing last four regular-season games in 2007.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Key players: S Derek Pegues, Sr.; RB Anthony Dixon, Jr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
Game Notes: Coach Sylvester Croom finally has a year to build on, including a bowl win. He also has experienced Wesley Carroll at quarterback. ... Top three tacklers are back on defense, plus Pegues.
MISSISSIPPI -- Key players: QB Jevan Snead, So.; DE Greg Hardy, Jr.; DT Peria Jerry, Sr.; OT Michael Oher, Sr.
Game Notes: New coach Houston Nutt inherits a team that won only three league games in Ed Orgeron's three seasons ... Snead is a Texas transfer.
ARKANSAS -- Key players: QB Casey Dick, Sr.; C Jonathan Luigs, Sr.; DT Ernest Mitchell, Sr. Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Game Notes: The Razorbacks made an NFL trade: Coach Bobby Petrino for backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, first-round draft picks. ... Games at Texas and Auburn don't help Petrino's cause.