- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Should the SEC East even bother playing games this season?
Shouldn't SEC commissioner Michael Slive just hand the SEC East trophy to defending national champion Florida on Sept. 5? That would be more compelling than the Gators' season opener against FCS opponent Charleston Southern, a 73-point underdog, according to one Las Vegas oddsmaker.
Maybe Slive could let Georgia freshman Orson Charles hand the trophy to Florida coach Urban Meyer. Maybe Charles wouldn't break this one (he shattered the 2006 BCS national championship trophy by bumping into it during a recruiting trip to Florida).
The SEC should just cancel the Gators' five games against SEC East opponents and let them schedule a few more contests against FCS and Sun Belt Conference foes (all of them to be played in the Swamp, of course). Or the league should just let Florida take the first 13 weeks of the season off, before it plays Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss in the Dec. 5 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
In fairness, the Gators should have to play at least one game before winning their third BCS championship in four seasons, which they'll do at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7. We don't want to make it too easy for them (like letting them play Ohio State again).
But with quarterback Tim Tebow coming back to Florida for his senior season, along with all 11 starters on defense, there hasn't been this sure a thing in the SEC in a long, long time.
The Gators are going to win the SEC East in 2009. And it's not even going to be close.
It's up to the Gators to determine how difficult it's going to be.
"With the success we've had, winning two national championships, we know how to win and know that believing the hype is not a way to win a national championship," Florida linebacker Ryan Stamper said. "We have to be focused on every team, every game and not be complacent. With the leadership returning this season, we know we can win."
The only question is whether Florida will slip up and lose to somebody like Ole Miss again this season. After winning their second BCS title in three years in 2008, the only thing left for these Gators to accomplish is finishing a season with an unblemished record.
"I don't care if people have us No. 1," Tebow said. "I really don't care because it doesn't matter where you're at before the season. Everybody's telling me, 'You have to go wire to wire to succeed.' No, we don't. It only matters at the end."
The SEC East is nothing more than a formality for Florida. The Gators are going to end up where they start the season -- on top of the division.
"Florida has a lot of talent returning and they're defending national champions," Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. "They're preseason No. 1. But like we learned last year, hype is hype. It's not about the preseason."
With quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno leading a high-powered offense, Georgia was a popular choice for No. 1 in the country last season.
Florida was still the media's choice to to win the SEC East in 2008. The Gators blasted the Bulldogs 49-10 in Jacksonville, Fla. At least one thing in college football never seems to change.
"We're always motivated to win the SEC East," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I don't know if it matters who is preseason No. 1 or the preseason choice. I'll bet it's 50-50 at best at everybody picking the right one. If you took the last 10 years, they might have been right half the time, wrong half the time."
Odds are the media won't be wrong this season.
Shouldn't the SEC just say Georgia is probably going to be pretty good in 2009, maybe good enough to win nine or 10 games and lose to the Gators by, oh, 40 points? With Stafford and Moreno leaving for the NFL, the Bulldogs will turn to senior Joe Cox at quarterback and a handful of unproven players at tailback.
Shouldn't we just pencil South Carolina in for fourth place or worse in the SEC East, which is where the Gamecocks ended up in all but one of the last seven seasons? Shouldn't we start looking for Steve Spurrier's retirement home and his antacids, after he spends a full season with Stephen Garcia as his starting quarterback?
Shouldn't we put Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin's over/under at nine? Not nine victories, of course, but the nine touchdowns the Gators will score when the Volunteers play at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Sept. 19. Kiffin accused Meyer of cheating in recruiting, which he didn't do. Meyer tends to have a long memory; ask Richt, who sat through his team's 39-point drubbing for a few extra minutes last season after Meyer called a couple of timeouts in the final minute to prolong the game.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt will be nothing more than bumps in the road for Florida.
"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."
The Gators will.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florida will win the SEC East. In fact, it won't even be close. The only question facing the Gators is who they will play in the SEC championship game.