SEC rivals take aim at Gators’ dominance

In his first seven months on the job, Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin spent plenty of time adding fuel to his burgeoning rivalry with Florida head coach Urban Meyer. But when Kiffin was asked about Meyer’s team during last week’s SEC Media Days, his view of the Gators fit perfectly with what most prognosticators assume will happen this season.

“They’ll win another national championship, and (quarterback Tim Tebow) will win a Heisman,” Kiffin said, adding for emphasis that his statement was not meant as a joke.

After all, there’s nothing funny about the weapons at Florida’s disposal this year for fellow resident of the SEC East.

Fresh off their second national championship in three years, the Gators will take the field in 2009 with essentially the same group of players that finished 13-1 last year. Only receiver Percy Harvin is gone from Florida’s explosive offense that scored 51 points on LSU, 63 on Kentucky, 42 on Vanderbilt, 56 on South Carolina and 49 on Georgia last season.

The defense, which held SEC East opponents to just 8.2 points per game last season, returns all 11 of its starters. Even the Gators’ backups are back, meaning the injury bug doesn’t even provide much hope for Florida’s competitors.

The Gators are the runaway favorites to win it all for a second straight year, and according to the polling done at SEC Media Days — voting by 64 reporters, not Kiffin — Florida was the unanimous selection to capture the SEC East once again.

“They got a chance to be pretty good,” Vanderbilt headcoach Bobby Johnson said, smiling at his own understatement. “They got a great program and have for years and years and years. You expect them to be one of the top teams in the country, especially with the people they’ve got going back and especially with a proven quarterback. A lot of advantages there for them. I think their coaching staff has proven that they can take advantage of them. They will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the SEC.”

With all the weapons at Meyer’s disposal, it might seem like a lost cause for the rest of the division before Tebow even has a chance to make his first inspirational halftime speech, but that’s not exactly how Florida’s competitors are looking at it.

Sure Tebow is considered the best offensive player in the conference by a wide margin, but it was just two seasons ago that Georgia beat him and only 10 months ago that Mississippi proved there were chinks in the armor.

“Every team has a star, and you’ve still got to find ways to win,” Georgia quarterback Joe Cox said. “(Tebow) is going to go down as probably one of the best college quarterbacks ever, but you still have to play them, and we’re going to try to find a way to win.”

Finding that game plan may not be simple, but a lot can happen during the course of a season. So before Florida’s presumed coronation, there will be a few teams still hoping to avoid the inevitable.

“We know Florida’s a great team, but to be honest, we’re not focusing on that,” Kentucky offensive lineman Zipp Duncan said. “We know for us to be successful, it starts with that first game. We know there are doubters, but we’re confident in our abilities and what we can do, so that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

For all the obstacles that Duncan’s Wildcats and the rest of the SEC East may present, focus could be Florida’s biggest hurdle.

A year ago, Georgia head coach Mark Richt took to the podium at SEC Media Days and answered a bevy of questions about lofty expectations and talented returning starters. Georgia was the preseason favorite, the No. 1 team in the country.

At year’s end, the Bulldogs were 10-3 with a 49-10 loss to Florida under their belts, and the memories of the preseason hype were nothing more than a bitter recollection of what might have been.

This year, Richt wasn’t asked about his expectations for his own team. Reporters wanted him to offer some advice to Florida. How could the Gators handle the burden of perceived invulnerability better than Georgia did?

“You’ve just got to stay focused on the things that will help you win and try to avoid all the other stuff,” Richt said. “It’s very difficult to do, because there’s a constant barrage of people wanting to talk about it.”

Meyer has planned for that, too.

His first national title came in 2006, and his team responded with a lackluster season behind Tebow the following year. This offseason, the Florida head coach planned for the hype that would invariably surround his team, and he said his players have worked as hard during the past six months as any offseason in his coaching career.

“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),” Meyer said. “We wake up every morning to try to achieve that goal.”

While Florida’s sights are set high, Cox said the goals at other schools haven’t changed much either. The only difference is Florida is expected to win the conference, while everyone else gets to sneak up on them.

“Our expectations haven’t changed,” Cox said. “We know a lot of people are probably overlooking us, and that’s probably the best thing for us. It’s made us have a good offseason, and we’re looking to keep rolling on through into camp and through the season.”

For all the talk about ignoring the mighty Gators, however, Georgia tackle Jeff Owens admits Florida’s dominance does create its share of motivation.

The truth is, Owens said, Florida deserves the hype it has received, and the Gators really do have a lot of talent on the roster. It will take a lot for anyone to knock them off, but there’s nothing wrong with setting the standard of excellence as high as possible.

Perhaps that’s why the sharp-tongued Kiffin was so quick to pronounce the SEC East race over already. After all, it’s a lot easier being the hunter than the hunted.

“They win the big games, and you can’t take anything from them,” Owens said. “They’re a great football team, and we know that if you’re going to be successful in this league, you’ve got to beat Florida. If you want to win a national championship or an SEC championship, you’ve got to beat Florida. That’s the No. 1 thing.”