ATHENS, Ga. — To read the preseason prognostications or peruse the polls, there won’t be much intrigue in the SEC this season. Florida is the defending national champion, the Gators return nearly their entire lineup from a year ago, and Florida is the odds-on pick to repeat as the conference’s top team.
But even if Florida is a team of destiny, the SEC still has its share of explosive storylines.
Three new head coaches begin their SEC careers this season, led by Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin, who has made enemies throughout the conference before even coaching a game. Georgia was last year’s preseason favorite, but the Bulldogs will spend 2009 trying to prove they’re ready to win without stars like Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. Vanderbilt looks to reach a second straight bowl game, Kentucky is searching to reach a new height, and Steve Spurrier may be at a crossroads at South Carolina.
And that’s just the SEC East.
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Still the story of the SEC’s 2009 season will begin in Gainesville, Fla., where Tim Tebow and the Gators look to win their third national title in four years.
“I’ve never been more anxious to coach a football team,” Florida coach Urban Meyer said. “Our goals are always the same as it was in 2005, as it is in 2009, and that is we want to do everything we can to get to Atlanta (for the SEC championship game). That’s our goal we wake up every morning to try to achieve that goal.”
Florida may be the favorite to repeat, but its road to Atlanta won’t come with any shortcuts.
Mark Richt knows firsthand how difficult it is to deal with lofty preseason expectations, as he watched Georgia stumble to a 10-3 finish a year ago after being the consensus favorite in August. This year, most predictions have the Bulldogs as a distant No. 2 in the East, and Richt isn’t complaining.
“I think just being a preseason No. 2 is a whole lot better than being preseason No. 1,” Richt said. “When you’re No. 1, you’ve just got to stay focused on the things that will help you win and try to avoid all the other stuff, which is very difficult to do, because there’s a constant barrage of people wanting to talk about it.”
Kiffin isn’t concerned with avoiding high expectations this season. He has been busy creating them.
The first-year head coach has fought several public wars of words with Spurrier and Meyer, and more than a few SEC coaches have probably circled their dates with Tennessee on their calendars.
The garish behavior was all part of a plan to boost the Volunteers’ profile, Kiffin said, and his players are excited about the chance to back it up.
“Lane Kiffin had a plan for our program from the moment he came in,” Tennessee tailback Montario Hardesty said. “It just brings more excitement for the upcoming year. The coaching staff stands up for us, and we’re behind them 100 percent.”
Of course, the most intriguing story line in the conference might be the battle for the right to face Florida — or whichever team takes the SEC East — in December at the Georgia Dome.
The SEC West is stocked with returning talent, and Alabama, Mississippi and LSU all have fans clamoring for a conference title. Even upstart Arkansas has high hopes under second-year head coach Bobby Petrino, and Auburn and Mississippi State each get fresh starts under new head coaches.
“I think the SEC West is going to be really challenging this year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think there’s a lot of good programs, there’s a lot of good teams, there’s a lot of good returning players. So I feel like it’s gonna be as tough as it’s ever been in terms of the competition in our league.”