SEC, Gators try to keep title in-house

The road to the national title game has run through the Southeastern Conference recently.

So while perfection would be nice for Tim Tebow and Florida, it’s not necessarily necessary. And the Gators know it.

“Our goal is to win the SEC championship,” Tebow said. “That’s our ultimate goal. We feel like if we’re the champions of the best conference in college football, then we should have the opportunity to play for it all.”

Tebow and the Gators have won national championships two of the last three seasons after losing a game and are the team to beat again in 2009. Two years ago, SEC rival LSU won the BCS title with not one but two defeats.

Even with Tebow back for his senior season — along with the entire starting defense — winding up at the top of the treacherous SEC won’t likely be any easier this go around.

While the Gators are the prohibitive favorites to win the national championship, Alabama, LSU and Mississippi — the last team to beat Florida — and Georgia will all start the season highly ranked.

Alabama coach Nick Saban won a share of the national title with LSU in 2003 with a 13-1 record. He said it takes “great competitive character” to win the league. Tebow certainly has that as anyone knows who has seen sideline shots on TV of him firing up his teammates.

Then there’s consistency. There’s seldom a good time for a bad game.

“You cannot be up and down or you’re not gonna sustain it in our league,” Saban said.

The Gators have Tebow with the usual array of dangerous weapons on offense. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, also back for his senior year, leads the defense.

The obstacles include an Alabama team with receiver Julio Jones and a defense that has Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and six more starters back after ranking third nationally in yards allowed. The Gators weren’t all that bothered by that group in a 31-20 SEC championship game win.

Then there’s LSU, which has running back Charles Scott, receiver Brandon LaFell and tackle Ciron Black to help ease quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s transition into the starting job. He led the Tigers to a 38-3 Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Georgia Tech.

The Rebels, meanwhile, have the league’s only other proven star at quarterback. Jevan Snead’s 26 touchdown passes in his first season as a starter trailed only Tebow’s 30 in the SEC. Defensive end Greg Hardy has 18.5 sacks in just 19 games the past two seasons.

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt led Arkansas to the 2006 SEC title game and knows it takes good fortune, not just talent.

“You’re in the toughest conference in America, I believe that with all my heart,” Houston Nutt said. “It’s very hard to get there. Things have to go right.”

A capsule look at the teams in predicted order of finish:

EAST

FLORIDA — Key players: QB Tim Tebow, LB Brandon Spikes, TE Aaron Hernandez, DE Carlos Dunlap. Returning starters: 7 offense, 11 defense.

Notes: RBs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey both averaged 7.8 ypc and gained more than 600 yards last season. … Top two receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy are gone from highest scoring team in SEC history. … Brandon James’ four punt returns for TDs is third all-time in SEC. … Line coach Steve Addazio replaces Dan Mullen as offensive coordinator.

GEORGIA — Key players: QB Joe Cox, WR A.J. Green, DT Jeff Owens, LB Rennie Curran. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Cox, whose lone college start came in 2006, was 31-0 as a starter in high school…. Green was first freshman to lead SEC in receiving since Auburn’s Ronney Daniel in 1999. … Owens returns from a season-ending knee injury sustained in the first quarter of the opening game. … RB Caleb King held the lead in race to replace Knowshon Moreno, but could be a job share.

SOUTH CAROLINA — Key players: QB Stephen Garcia, LB Eric Norwood, WR Moe Brown, S Darian Stewart. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: Garcia, who is expected to take over the starting job fulltime, is also Gamecocks’ top returning rusher. … Top two receivers are gone. … Coach Steve Spurrier hired five new assistants, including defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. … Gamecocks ranked 112th in rushing last season.

VANDERBILT — Key players: QBs Mackenzi Adams and Larry Smith, LB Patrick Benoist, CB Myron Lewis. Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: 18 returning starters on offense and defense matches Florida for most in SEC. … QB battle is key for last year’s league worst passing attack. … Play at LSU, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. … Commodores coming off first winning season since 1982 and first bowl win in 53 years.

TENNESSEE — Key players: S Eric Berry, LB Rico McCoy, WR Gerald Jones, RB Montario Hardesty. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: QBs Nick Stephens and Jonathan Crompton once again vie for top job. … Hardesty could face challenge from top recruits Bryce Brown and David Oku. Freshman WR Nu’Keese Richardson also is expected to make an immediate impact.

KENTUCKY — Key players: QB Mike Hartline, CB Trevard Lindley, LB Micah Jackson. Returning starters, 5 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Gone are three of top four tacklers. … Three starters return on offensive line that allowed fourth fewest sacks in country. … Former starting QB Randall Cobb now at receiver.

WEST

LSU — Key players: WR Brandon LaFell, RB Charles Scott, DE Rahim Alem, QB Jordan Jefferson. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Jefferson has plenty of receiver help, from LaFell to nation’s top receiver recruit Rueben Randle. … Ex-Tennessee defensive chief John Chavis takes over unit that twice gave up 50-plus points. … Black has started 40 straight games at left tackle. … Tigers play Alabama and Mississippi on the road.

ALABAMA — Key players: WR Julio Jones, QB Greg McElroy, NG Terrence Cody, LB Rolando McClain, CB/RS Javier Arenas. Returning starters: 4 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: Tide is 17-31 in the four seasons after reaching double-digit wins since 1996. …. McElroy spent three years as Chase Daniels’ backup in high school and set Texas state record for TD passes in lone season as starter. … Alabama must replace three All-Americans, two on offensive line. … RB Mark Ingram led team with 12 TD runs last season as Glen Coffee’s backup.

OLE MISS — Key players: QB Jevan Snead, DE Greg Hardy, OL John Jerry, RB/WR Dexter McCluster. Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Ole Miss aas easiest nonconference schedule of all league contenders. … Rebels return players responsible for 96 percent of rushing yards, led by McCluster and Cordera Eason. … Snead set Ole Miss records for average yards per completion and pass attempts. … Rebels have not had back-to-back winning SEC records since 1989-90, six head coaches ago.

ARKANSAS — Key players: QB Ryan Mallett, RB Michael Smith, RB, DE Adrian Davis. Returning starters: 8 offense, 10 defense.

Notes: Mallett sat out last season after transferring from Michigan. The 6-foot-7 QB shed weight in the offseason to become more mobile. …. Razorbacks ranked last in league in run, total and scoring defense.

AUBURN — Key players: LT Lee Ziemba, DE Antonio Coleman, RB Ben Tate, WR Terrell Zachery. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: New coach Gene Chizik has little depth or star power on the roster. … QBs Kodi Burns and Chris Todd are only ones with experience in three- or four-man battle for starting job. … Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has led one of nation’s top two offenses in yards per game last two seasons at Tulsa.

MISSISSIPPI STATE — Key players: RB Anthony Dixon, LB Jamar Chaney, LB K.J. Wright. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.

Notes: Dan Mullen takes over program after winning two national titles as a Florida assistant. He brings a spread offense along with that track record to team that ranked 115th nationally in scoring last season. … Dixon needs 610 yards to pass Jerious Norwood as school’s all-time leader. QB Tyson Lee is trying to hold off Chris Relf and freshman Tyler Russell.

John Zenor/The Associated Press