Take heart, Southeastern Conference: Tim Tebow and Mount Cody are gone.
That’s right, there will be no Tebow barreling over defenders for Florida, and no Cody clogging up the middle for Alabama.
“The two teams that lost the most just on paper is probably Alabama and Florida,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.
But that was expected, since those two teams arguably had the most to lose.
However, they’re still the odds-on favorites to meet in the SEC championship game for a third straight year, with the winner likely competing for a national title — again. Florida and Alabama have combined to win the BCS championship three of the last four years; the other one went to SEC rival LSU.
As an added treat, Florida and Alabama meet on Oct. 2 in Tuscaloosa. That at least guarantees they couldn’t play as unbeatens in the SEC title game.
Chasing the defending champion Tide in the Western Division will be two teams led by transfer quarterbacks, Arkansas and Ryan Mallett and Mississippi and newcomer Jeremiah Masoli. Not to mention an LSU team trying to get back on top and Auburn playing catch-up with in-state rival Alabama.
“Every team on our end of it is going to improve,” Saban said.
Florida could face a challenge from Georgia and receiver A.J. Green. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier has Stephen Garcia back running his offense.
“The East is completely wide open,” Gators coach Urban Meyer said.
There was plenty of turnover around the league in the two most high-profile positions: Head coach and quarterback.
Tennessee replaces Lane Kiffin with coach Derek Dooley. Vanderbilt welcomes first-time college head coach Robbie Caldwell — thanks to Bobby Johnson’s midsummer retirement — and Kentucky’s Joker Phillips got to remove the in-waiting part of his title.
With Tebow in the NFL, Mallett is the only bona fide returning star at quarterback, though Alabama’s Greg McElroy still hasn’t lost as a starter since eighth-grade.
The Tide’s stingy defense must replace two-time All-America noseguard Terrence “Mount” Cody and Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rolando McClain. But there’s still running back Mark Ingram — the Tide’s first Heisman winner — and fellow Alabama offensive threats Julio Jones and Trent Richardson.
The Meyer-Saban battle remained intact, though, when the Florida coach changed his mind a day after announcing he was stepping down last December after a health scare.
“The battery is recharged,” Meyer said in July.
And so is the battle for No. 1 in the SEC.
FLORIDA — Key players: QB John Brantley, RB Jeff Demps, CB Janoris Jenkins. Returning starters: 6 offense. 5 defense.
Notes: Overlooked with loss of Tim Tebow, three top receivers are also gone. Brantley has played in 16 games with 10 touchdowns and one interception. Coach Urban Meyer said a “bunch” of newcomers from loaded recruiting class will play. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin replaces Charlie Strong.
GEORGIA — Key players: WR A.J. Green, QB Aaron Murray, LT Clint Boling. Returning starters: 10 offense; 5 defense.
Notes: Switching to three-man front on defense under new coordinator Todd Grantham. DE Justin Houston and RB Richard Samuel moved to LB. Entire starting offensive line returns after allowing league-low 12 sacks. Backfield is strong, led by Washaun Ealey and Caleb King. P Drew Butler is one of the nation’s best.
SOUTH CAROLINA — Key players: QB Stephen Garcia, WR Alshon Jeffery, DE Cliff Matthews. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: RB Kenny Miles and top four rushers return, joined by top recruit Marcus Lattimore. Shawn Elliott is third offensive line coach in as many years; Gamecocks allowed 37 sacks last year. Garcia is the league’s leading active passer, but has been erratic for nation’s 102-ranked scoring offense.
TENNESSEE — Key players: WR Gerald Jones, TB Tauren Poole, DE Chris Walker. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: New coach Derek Dooley inherits culture and roster issues. Must replace two top rushers and passers, and four leading tacklers. Battling for QB job are freshman Tyler Bray and junior college transfer Matt Simms, son of ex-Giants QB Phil and brother of current Titans’ player Chris. RB Bryce Brown and QB Nick Stephens left team in offseason.
KENTUCKY — Key players: WR/RS Randall Cobb, TB Derrick Locke, DE DeQuin Evans. Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Joker Phillips only second black head football coach in SEC. QBs Mike Hartline, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski battling for starting job. Wildcats have won at least seven games four straight years for the first time since 1909-12. Cobb and Locke were AP’s first- and second-team all-purpose players, respectively.
VANDERBILT — Key players: QB Larry Smith, RB/RS Warren Norman, LB Chris Marve. Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Robbie Caldwell has a tough audition as interim head coach after replacing Bobby Johnson in mid-July. Vandy faces 10 teams that made bowl games last season. LB Chris Marve was SEC’s No. 2 tackler. Starting QB Larry Smith returns but had just four TD passes against seven INTs last season for league’s worst scoring offense (16.3 ppg).
ALABAMA — Key players: RB Mark Ingram, QB Greg McElroy, LB Dont’a Hightower. Returning starters: 8 offense, 2 defense.
Notes — DE Marcell Dareus’ status was unclear entering fall camp with an NCAA investigation into who paid for a trip to Miami’s South Beach. Backfield of Ingram and sophomore Trent Richardson might be nation’s best duo. Only two defensive starters return, but replacements include several highly touted youngsters.
ARKANSAS — Key players: QB Ryan Mallett, WR Greg Childs, LB Jerry Franklin. Returning starters: 9 offense, 7 defense.
Notes — Most returning starters among SEC teams. Mallett and all his key targets are back from league’s top scoring and passing offense. One of the deepest, best receiving corps around. Bobby Petrino promoted Garrick McGee to offensive coordinator. Team leaders in 18 categories return, but defense was SEC’s worst.
AUBURN — Key players: QB Cameron Newton, LT Lee Ziemba, LB Josh Bynes. Returning starters: 7 offense. 8 defense.
Notes — Only SEC coaching staff to return intact. DBs Aairon Savage, Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge trying to return from serious injuries. Newton won the No. 1 job in the spring after transferring from JUCO. RB Michael Dyer headlines one of the Tigers’ top-rated recruiting classes in years.
Ole Miss — Key players: QB Jeremiah Masoli, RB Brandon Bolden, DT Jerrell Powe. Returning starters: 3 offense, 6 defense.
Notes — 9 returning starters is fewest in SEC, but Masoli’s transfer from Oregon is a potentially huge boost. Rebels return players responsible for less than 42 percent of passing, rushing and receiving yards. Defensive line remains formidable with Jerrell Powe manning the middle.
LSU — QB Jordan Jefferson, LB Kelvin Sheppard, CB Patrick Peterson. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.
Notes — Defense lost 4 of its top 5 tacklers. Nonconference games against North Carolina and West Virginia. Redshirt freshman RB Michael Ford could be big factor in backfield. Peterson and Sheppard are two of the league’s top defenders.
MISSISSIPPI ST. — Key players: QBs Chris Relf and Tyler Russell, OT Derek Sherrod, DE Pernell McPhee. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Coach Dan Mullen said bulldozing QB Chris Relf is “completely different” in his approach and demeanor from last season. He’s listed as co-No. 1 with Russell. JUCO transfers RB Vick Ballard and 6-foot-7, 345 JUCO DT James Carmon could play roles after going through spring. New coaches Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson will run the defense.
John Zenor/The Associated Press