The Southeastern Conference coaches made defending champion South Carolina the preseason favorite to win the East Division, but Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier admitted one of the keys to last season’s title was the demise of traditional powers Florida, Georgia and Tennessee as Carolina was a middle-of-the-pack SEC team on both sides of the ball.

The Gamecocks have the talent to repeat if those other three all fail to bounce back, but the Bulldogs appear to be on the rebound as coach Mark Richt enters his 11th season.

“We know that six of our losses were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter,” coach Mark Richt said. “If we just finished better, we’ll have a better season. We’re not getting blown out of the water; we just didn’t win.”

They had better win this season and win early as they open with Boise State in Atlanta before an early season (Sept. 10) showdown with South Carolina in Athens, Ga., that should establish the team to beat.

“Taking care of those first two games is really vital to our season,” cornerback Brandon Boykins said, “not just from a standpoint of us getting to the national championship, but our pride as a Georgia Bulldog.”

The SEC East’s pride can use a boost as well. Of the league’s five consecutive BCS titles, three of the past four, including the past two, have been won by the West champion, and South Carolina’s 5-3 league mark last season would have tied it for fourth in the West.

“If you had to say which side of the conference is stronger at this moment,” Richt said, “I would agree with most everybody to say it’s the West.”

Predicted order of finish

1. Georgia

Last season: 6-7, 3-5

Returning starters: 4 on offense, 7 on defense.

Key games: vs. Boise State (Sept. 3), vs. South Carolina (Sept. 10), vs. Florida (Oct. 29)

Quarterback Aaron Murray was picked by the coaches on the preseason All-SEC team even though he’s just a sophomore.

Sizable tackles Kwame Geathers and Johnathan Jenkins could shore up the defense, and the Bulldogs should have among the best special teams in the country.

2. South Carolina

Last season: 9-5, 5-3

Returning starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense.

Key games: at Georgia (Sept. 10), at Tennessee (Oct. 29), vs. Florida (Nov. 12)

The Gamecocks are loaded at the skill positions with running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, but senior quarterback Stephen Garcia remains a wild card.

The defense should receive a boost from the arrival of freshman end Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 recruit in the country.

3. Florida

Last season: 8-5, 4-4

Returning starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense.

Key games: vs. Alabama (Oct. 1), vs. Georgia Oct. 29), at South Carolina (Nov. 12).

Former LSU defensive coordinator Will Muschamp succeeds Urban Meyer as the Gators try to regain their status as championship contenders.

New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis must get better line play than Florida had last year if he’s going to take advantage of running back Jeff Demps and quarterback John Brantley.

The Gators didn’t have a single player selected for the preseason All-SEC first- or second-team on defense.

4. Tennessee

Last season: 6-7, 3-5

Returning starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense.

Key games: at Florida (Sept. 17), vs. Georgia (Oct. 8), at Kentucky (Nov. 26).

The Volunteers have one of the youngest teams in the SEC, featuring more than twice as many freshmen and sophomores as juniors and seniors.

The offense will hinge primarily on the development of talented sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray.

Preseason All-SEC lineman Malik Jackson is the only returning starter among the front seven on defense.

5. Kentucky

Last season: 6-7, 2-6

Returning starters: 6 on offense, 10 on defense.

Key games: vs. Louisville (Sept. 17), vs. Florida (Sept. 24), vs. Tennessee (Nov. 26).

Coach Joker Phillips brought in former Cincinnati head coach Rick Minter to coordinate his defense, and Minter inherits 10 starters from last year’s defense.

But on the other side of the ball, the Wildcats lost virtually all of their top playmakers.

6. Vanderbilt

Last season: 2-10, 1-7

Returning starters: 11 on offense, 8 on defense.

Key games: vs. Army (Oct. 22), vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12), vs. Tennessee (Nov. 19).

New coach James Franklin takes over a team that had the second-worst passing efficiency offense in the country last season.

The defense has more potential with first-team All-SEC preseason linebacker Chris Marve and second-team defensive back Casey Hayward.