SEC season predictions

The more things change in the SEC, the more they seem to stay the same.

If you’ve enjoyed watching Alabama and Florida tango each of the past two seasons in the SEC championship game, then why not make it a best 2-out-of-3 series with a third straight meeting in Atlanta this season?

Actually, it would be the fourth meeting, because the two teams clash in the regular season this year.

Alabama and Florida remain the class of this league, but defending their divisional titles will take some doing. The Crimson Tide lost nine defensive starters from their national championship team a year ago, and the Gators will be without nine players who were taken in the first five rounds of the NFL draft.

The rest of the field in the SEC is lining up to catch them. The chase begins this week.

What would a football season be without a few predictions?:

East champion: Florida. The Gators have a standing reservation in Atlanta for that first Saturday in December. They’ll make it back this season, but getting past Georgia won’t be easy.

West champion: Alabama. A third straight perfect regular season might be too much to ask, but the Crimson Tide will ride a powerhouse running game to a third straight West title.

SEC champion: Alabama. Just like Florida a year ago, until somebody proves differently, Alabama is still the team to beat. Don’t let the personnel losses on defense fool you, either. The Crimson Tide still have more talent than anybody in the league.

Offensive MVP: Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. He can throw from the pocket. He can throw on the move, and he has great receiving talent around him. He’s also become one of the Hogs’ strongest leaders.

Defensive MVP: Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Defense will always be what sets the SEC apart, and now that he’s healthy again, Hightower will be a force, whether he’s lining up at middle linebacker or putting his hand down and rushing the passer.

Surprise team: Georgia. The Bulldogs will push Florida to the limit in the East, and in doing so, will re-establish themselves as one of the powers in the SEC.

Team most likely to disappoint: South Carolina. Nobody’s predicting the Gamecocks will have a lousy season, but history tells us they probably won’t live up to those grandiose expectations in the Palmetto State.

Surprise player: Florida receiver Deonte Thompson. He was known more for the passes he didn’t catch last season. But with John Brantley looking his way early and often, Thompson will be known more for the passes he catches this season.

Freshman of the Year: South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. The Gamecocks needed a burst of something in their running game. They got it in Lattimore, who has the speed, power and acceleration to be a great one.

Newcomer of the Year: Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton. The way Newton describes himself is that he’s a pocket passer who can scramble when he has to. Sounds like a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s offense.

Coach of the Year: Georgia’s Mark Richt. Other than last season, the guy has been incredibly consistent. Finally, he gets some recognition for that consistency as the Bulldogs bounce back with a vengeance in 2010.

Can’t miss game: Florida at Alabama, Oct. 2. They’ve met in the past two SEC championship games and won the past two national championships. Their first regular-season meeting since 2006 is one nobody will want to miss.