Gator bandwagon

A lot of people are conceding the 2006 Southeastern Conference Eastern Division football title to the Florida Gators. That's because Georgia is faced with some gaping holes to fill and Tennessee is coming off a 5-6 disaster.

The Bulldogs are looking to replace some real standouts – 2005 SEC Offensive Player of the Year D.J. Shockley at quarterback, Leonard Pope at tight end, Max Jean-Gilles at guard, DaMario Minter and Tim Jennings at cornerback, plus Greg Blue at safety. That's a tall order.

The Vols, meanwhile, are generally dismissed as an SEC East title contender after going 1-4 in division play last fall – the lone victory coming in the finale against Kentucky. Three of the SEC East losses were at home – 27-14 to Georgia, 16-15 to South Carolina and 28-24 to Vanderbilt. The other division loss was a 16-7 setback at Florida.

Stability at quarterback influences preseason rankings, and Florida certainly has the advantage over UT and Georgia in that regard. Whereas Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge is coming off an awful 2005 season and Georgia may rely on true freshman Matthew Stafford at QB, Florida has a proven veteran in Chris Leak. Urban Meyer's Gators also have a solid supporting cast. Thus, many experts already are penciling in the Gators as SEC East champs.

Not everybody is on the Florida bandwagon, though. Pete Fiutak of, responding to a question about which conference races will be the best in 2006, suggests the SEC East will be a three-team dog fight among the Gators, Dawgs and Vols. Here's what he has to say:

"The best conference race should be Conference USA's with UCF, East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis, Southern Miss, Houston, UTEP and Tulsa all good enough to win the title, and SMU and UAB not far behind. The best divisional race will likely be the Big 12 North's or else the SEC East. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are all good enough to win the SEC title, while South Carolina will once again be a pain in everyone's butt. Nebraska will likely be the favorite in the Big 12 North, but that's going to be a whale of a race."

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