SEC schools have won the past three national titles, and Florida appears primed to make it four in a row this season.
Urban Meyer's Gators return their entire starting defense - and each of their defensive second-teamers from a season ago - as well as Heisman-winning QB Tim Tebow in their quest to win their third national title in four seasons. They look to be head-and-shoulders better than anyone else in the SEC East. The SEC West, though, should be an intriguing race.
Defending division champ Alabama has to rebuild its offense but has what should be a stout defense. LSU is looking for consistent quarterback play and hoping for a much better defense under new coordinator John Chavis, who became a free agent when Tennessee booted coach Phil Fulmer and his staff. Ole Miss has the best quarterback in the division and a lot of playmakers, but it lacks the depth of the Tide and the Tigers. One advantage for Ole Miss is that Alabama and LSU have to travel to Oxford.
Three new coaches should spice things up as well. Tennessee hired former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, who proceeded to fire up his fan base - and infuriate those at Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina - with his actions and comments on the recruiting trail. Kiffin hired his dad - former longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Monte Kiffin - to oversee his defense, named former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron his defensive line coach and brought in St. Louis Rams assistant Jim Chaney to be offensive coordinator, though Lane Kiffin will call the plays.
Mississippi State hired Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen as its coach in an effort to spice up an offense that has been one of the worst in the league this decade.
And Auburn hired Gene Chizik after sending Tommy Tuberville on his way in one of the most bizarre coaching decisions in recent memory; Chizik was 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State and replaces one of the most successful coaches in Auburn history.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Florida QB Tim Tebow. Tebow, a senior, has won a Heisman and has two national title rings. He is one of the leading Heisman contenders this season and also could get a third national championship ring. He has thrown 67 career touchdown passes - to just 11 interceptions - and has run for another 43 scores. He might be overexposed, but he's a great leader and a nightmare for opposing defenses.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Tennessee SS Eric Berry. Berry is a steady player and also a big-play machine. You might not notice him on every defensive series, but chances are he'll make three or four memorable plays each game, whether it is an interception, a tipped pass or a big hit. He made 72 tackles last season, with three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. He also had seven picks and six pass breakups. Berry, a junior, has 12 career interceptions, and he has returned them for 487 yards; he is 15 yards away from setting an NCAA record for most interception return yards.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Alabama QB Greg McElroy. Alabama won 12 games last season despite senior QB John Parker Wilson throwing just 10 touchdown passes. While Wilson didn't put up huge numbers, he also didn't turn it over all that often, finishing with eight picks; three of those interceptions came in Alabama's two losses. McElroy, a junior starting for the first time, isn't likely to put up huge numbers, but as long as he's an effective game manager and avoids killer turnovers, Alabama has a great shot at winning the SEC West again.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Ole Miss E Greg Hardy. Hardy has all kinds of talent, and he flashed it at times last season, finishing with 8.5 sacks despite playing in just nine games. But he has battled injury problems as well as inconsistency during his career with the Rebels. If he has his head on straight, he could make himself a lot of NFL money with a big senior season. A 15-sack season is a legitimate goal. Ole Miss' defense had some issues last season, but a big season from Hardy would ease some of the pressure on the back seven.
PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Georgia QB Joe Cox. Cox, a fifth-year senior, patiently has waited his turn, and he finally gets a chance to start this season. The guy he's replacing just happens to be Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. While Stafford wasn't always lights out for the Bulldogs, he did throw for 3,459 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Cox isn't nearly as physically gifted as Stafford, but he's considered a great leader, knows the offense and has some talented skill-position players around him. If he can get to 20 TD passes and keep his interception total at less than 10, Georgia coaches will be happy.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Florida WR Deonte Thompson. Thompson, a sophomore, is a nice blend of size and speed. Thompson is 6 feet and 201 pounds, and he's a sprinter on the Gators' track team - which tied for second nationally. He also plays a position crying out for impact players. The Gators lost their two leading wide receivers, and Thompson seems the most likely candidate to become the go-to receiver. He had 18 catches last season and could get into the high 40s or low 50s this season. He has the speed to get deep and the strength to turn short routes into long gains.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower. When it comes to the Tide's defense, much of the attention will be focused on DT Terrence Cody and LB Rolando McClain, who are returning All-America players. But Hightower will muscle his way into the spotlight as well. He started 12 games as a true freshman last season, finishing with 64 tackles. He is a huge linebacker - 6-4 and 250 pounds - but he runs extremely well and always seems to be around the football. Look for him to be asked to rush the passer more this season - and that has to make opposing quarterbacks a bit nervous.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. Mallett, a sophomore transfer from Michigan, looks to be a perfect fit for coach Bobby Petrino's offense. Mallett isn't mobile, but he has a strong arm and has a nice touch. Look for a lot of deep patterns from Mallett, and Arkansas is a good bet to lead the league in passing yards this season.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is a true freshman who enrolled early and wowed coaches during spring ball. He's expected to start this season and should provide a big-play element to the Gamecocks' secondary.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: LSU LB Perry Riley. Riley was one of 12 finalists for the Butkus Award last season, given annually to the nation's best linebacker. Riley might have been one of the top 12 linebackers in the SEC last season. But one of the 12 best in the nation? No way. He finished the season with 60 tackles, third-best on the team, and didn't do much in the Tigers' five losses, coming up with 22 combined stops in those games. And for those who want to talk about LSU's talent at linebacker, consider that the Tigers haven't had a linebacker drafted since Bradie James in 2003 - and he's the only one since 1989.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: Mississippi State LB Jamar Chaney. Chaney missed all but one game last season with a broken leg, a season after leading the Bulldogs with 89 tackles. He's a physical guy who moved well laterally before his injury. He's supposed to be 100 percent this season, and his return will provide a big boost to the defense.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: None, really. No SEC coach is in danger of being fired - mainly because three-fourths of the league's coaches have been on the job for five seasons or less. There are three first-year guys and two second-year guys, and though SEC athletic directors are known for their quick triggers, there's no reason to believe the league will have any new coaches next season unless South Carolina's Steve Spurrier (heading into his fifth season) and Kentucky's Rich Brooks (seventh) decide to hang it up on their own.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Florida. Coach Urban Meyer's version of the spread has worked quite nicely in the SEC, with two national titles in three seasons. Wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales is a rising star, though there is a new offensive coordinator (line coach Steve Addazio). Charlie Strong heads a strong defensive staff, with help from veterans Dan McCarney (line) and Chuck Heater (safeties).
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: LSU's Gary Crowton. Don't go strictly by last season, though the Tigers' offense still was proficient, especially in the red zone. Look at his career as a whole. Crowton has done solid work at LSU with less-than-stellar quarterbacks and also has a good track record at previous stops at Oregon, BYU and Louisiana Tech.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Florida's Charlie Strong. Strong's defense played extremely well down the stretch last season, and he has his entire two-deep returning to work with this season. Strong does a nice job game-planning around his players; he is aggressive and likes to blitz. In Strong's four seasons as coordinator, the Gators have forced 115 turnovers, an average of almost 29 per season.
1. Alabama vs. Virginia Tech in Atlanta, Sept. 5
2. Georgia at Oklahoma State, Sept. 5
Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 19
LSU at Georgia, Oct. 3
Florida at LSU, Oct. 10
Georgia at Tennessee, Oct. 10
Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 10
Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., Oct. 31
LSU at Alabama, Nov. 7
LSU at Ole Miss, Nov. 21
GAME OF THE YEAR: Alabama at Ole Miss, Oct. 10. The SEC West race has a lot more intrigue than the SEC East race, and this will be the first game between any of the West contenders. For the first time in a long while, Ole Miss is the hunted, while Alabama is used to that role. Can the Rebels withstand the pressure? Ole Miss gets both Alabama and LSU (on Nov. 21) in Oxford this season.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Georgia. The Bulldogs have six home games, tied for fewest in the league. They open and close with tough non-conference games on the road (Oklahoma State is the opener and Georgia Tech the finale), and they also play Florida away from home, in Jacksonville, Fla. The flipside: The conference road games aren't that tough.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Ole Miss. The Rebels play two Football Championship Subdivision teams in non-conference play, with the other two non-league games against Conference USA schools. They miss Florida and Georgia from the East and get their two toughest opponents (Alabama and LSU) at home. Kentucky deserves notice, too; the Wildcats are the only SEC team that doesn't play a non-conference game against an opponent that went bowling last season. In addition, two of the three toughest conference games are at home (Florida and Alabama) and they miss LSU and Ole Miss from the West.
MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Chattanooga at Alabama, Nov. 21. Chattanooga was 1-11 last season and has won a combined six games in the past three seasons. The Mocs have lost 21 in a row to Football Bowl Subdivision foes; there were two such losses last season, by a combined 94 points. In those 21 games, they have lost by an average of 35 points. Plus, this is the final home game of the season for Alabama, which is a real nice way to send out your seniors.