• 70°

Tebow returns to rule conference once again

With the last-minute decisions Thursday of Florida stars Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes, we now know which college football underclassmen will begin their NFL careers a year early (Harvin falls into this category) and which will hang around for another year (a list that includes Spikes).

So, now is the earliest we can make reasonable predictions about the 2009 season. Come to think of it, though, we probably didn’t need to wait on Harvin and Spikes. When the Gator that matters, quarterback Tim Tebow, made his decision, we could have gone ahead and penned—not penciled because we won’t need the eraser—Florida in to repeat as SEC champions next season.

Like when the Florida basketball foursome of Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah won a national championship then put off fat paychecks for a second title, Tebow decided he enjoys college too much to leave just yet.

Good for Tebow and Florida; bad for everybody else. The Gators won’t be seriously challenged in the conference’s Eastern Division. Even if we forget that Tebow is one of the best college players ever and the Gators defense will return intact, other East teams don’t inspire much confidence: Georgia underclassmen Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno declared for the draft, Lane Kiffin’s first year as head coach of a college program won’t go smoothly for Tennessee, South Carolina under Steve Spurrier can’t seem to be any better than South Carolina without Steve Spurrier, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt are still Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

The West will be much more competitive. LSU, Ole Miss and defending champion Alabama will all have a shot. The Tigers appear to have found a quarterback in Jordan Jefferson, MVP of the team’s 38-3 drubbing of Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl. That position was LSU’s main problem last year in a disappointing five-loss campaign.

Ole Miss shocked everyone by finishing in the top 15 in most polls, but Rebels coach Houston Nutt’s record of producing quality teams when he’s supposed to isn’t impressive.

Instead, look for the Crimson Tide to repeat as division champs. There will be significant questions on offense, but the defense, which will return all but two players that contributed in ‘08, will be better than all but Florida’s. Alabama might have the conference’s most favorable schedule with LSU visiting Tuscaloosa and Florida and Georgia, which should be the two best teams in the East, left off the slate altogether. And, like last year, Alabama will have a top-5 recruiting class to add to the mix.

But ‘Bama won’t even be as close to Florida as it was last season, and the Gators will make it two straight over the Tide in Atlanta in the seventh edition of the most common match-up in the history of the SEC Championship Game.