BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A shaky quarterback situation and unproven wide receivers haven't deterred the perception of Florida's dominance over the Southeastern Conference.
The Gators, 10-2 a year ago, were again the overwhelming choice to win asixth conference title this decade. In voting conducted during thethree-day SEC Kickoff, Florida captured 32 of the 45 first-place votesin the preseason poll. Tennessee, the defending champs, was pickedsecond in the Eastern Division, followed by Georgia, Kentucky, SouthCarolina and Vanderbilt.
If preseason polls mean anything, LSU should run away with the WesternDivision crown. Despite the suspension or dismissal of four key players,including running back Cecil "The Diesel" Collins,the Tigerscaptured 11 first-place votes.
The West's race for second may be more convoluted, with Auburn edgingOle Miss and Mississippi State. For Alabama, one voting point ahead ofArkansas, it's the lowest the Tide's ever been ranked heading into aseason.
"We want our players to know going in that we're supposed to win,"said Florida's Steve Spurrier. "We don't want to feel like it'sa fluke if we win the championship. Being first can only help us."
CRISIS CONTROL: Gerry DiNardo is happy to be talkingfootball and not fallout. His tumultuous offseason is almost complete.Along with suspending Collins, the predicted SEC West champ suspended ordismissed safety Chris Beard, defensive backs ClarenceLeBlanc and Nate Gates. The Tigers have also suffered throughthe apparent suicide of reserve center Naeshall Menard.
"It's unrealistic to say these things haven't been a distraction,"DiNardo said. "But Kevin Faulk came back, so that's one thingthat's positive to talk about. And that's what it comes down to: Whatyou decide to talk about.
"There's no way of knowing how a team is going to react to crisis. Butthe advantage we have now is that the players have confidence in ourability to make the right decisions. I've had player after player who ispart of our leadership team come to me and say there's not a guy on theteam who is upset with the decisions we made. They say they're upsetwith the people who made the mistakes.
"The end is, we had a choice of what to focus on. And we've had way toomany good things happen to us, and we hope that's how people will see uswhen it's all over."
SELLOUT: General public tickets for the 1998 SEC Championshipgame at the Georgia Dome have sold out, the earliest in the game'ssix-year history. The two participating schools will each receive anallotment of 15,900 tickets for the Dec. 5 game.
ONE LINERS: Vanderbilt's leading rusher and receiver from a yearago, sophomore Jimmy Williams, has been moved to cornerback andwill replace the departed Corey Chavous, a former Silver BluffHigh star who was picked in the second round of the NFL Draft by theArizona Cardinals. Coach Woody Widenhofer said Williams requestedthe move, saying he saw his professional future as a defensive back.North Augusta's Fred Vinson, who started at the corner oppositeChavous last season, was a preseason all-SEC pick on Thursday.
-- Georgia and South Carolina each placed two players on the preseasonteam. Bulldog offensive tackle Matt Stinchcomb and cornerbackChamp Bailey and Gamecock offensive lineman Jamar Nesbitand defensive back Arturo Freeman made the team.
-- While Tennessee starts its Post-Peyton Manning season atSyracuse, Florida opens with I-AA creampuff The Citadel and I-A walkoverNortheast Louisiana.
"We're not going to get too worked up to play them," Spurrier said."We had Western Michigan back out on us because Michigan offered themmore money. So we found The Citadel at the last moment, though I'm notsure where we found them. I'd rather play Notre Dame or Michigan, butwe've got to find two teams to come to the Swamp so we can play six homegames."
SIX MEN OUT: Kentucky expects to lose six freshmen footballrecruits to academic ineligibility, according to coach Hal Mumme.
Mumme, entering his second season at Kentucky, had signed 31 incomingplayers, but said repeatedly he would be happy if 25 were eligible toplay as true freshmen.
Among the ineligible players is highly touted tight end BobbyBlizzard, a 6-foot-7, 240-pounder who was a high school teammate ofthe nation's top prep quarterback, Ronald Curry. Blizzard isexpected to sit out the fall semester and continue trying to pass thestandardized test he needs, hoping to enroll at Kentucky in January.