- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Cameron Newton has abundant faith in No. 4 Florida’s new quarterback.

And he should know: Both were once Tim Tebow backups and potential heirs to the Heisman Trophy winner.

“The whole college nation will be hearing about John Brantley, because he’s an excellent quarterback,” Newton said.

Plenty will be hearing about Newton, too. He’s set to start his first game for No. 22 Auburn Saturday against Arkansas State. Newton just arrived by way of a Texas junior college while Brantley stuck it out with the Gators.

Newton and Brantley will have substantial company around the Southeastern Conference when the season opens, even if Jeremiah Masoli doesn’t wind up joining them.

Newton is one of five quarterbacks set to make their first start for an SEC team. The others are Aaron Murray (Georgia), Nathan Stanley (Mississippi), Matt Simms (Tennessee) and either Chris Relf or Tyler Russell (Mississippi State).

At least eight teams will open with starters who didn’t finish last season in that role. The combined passing numbers for the five returnees who saw SEC action in 2009: 1,658 yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

That includes Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith and Kentucky’s Mike Hartline, who were sidelined with injuries at season’s end.

Having a new quarterback is not always a hindrance, particularly when the new guy is a longtime backup like Brantley. Alabama’s Greg McElroy led the Tide to a national championship last season in his first year as a starter but fourth in the program. And Arkansas’s Ryan Mallett, maybe the league’s only bona fide star passer going into opening weekend, put up big numbers quickly.

But it can make for quite an interesting ride. See Snead, Jevan.

After all, defenders in the SEC are fast, the hits vicious and the challenge considerable.

“You see a lot of quarterbacks that come through who are great and just struggle in the SEC,” McElroy said. “It’s so hard to play consistently in this league because week in and week out, you’re getting a team’s best shot. You’re getting a well-coached team, you’re getting a disciplined team, you’re getting a team that has big, fast athletes. That makes it difficult to be consistent.”

Just ask Stephen Garcia. The up-and-down South Carolina junior is the SEC’s most experienced quarterback but he’s being challenged by freshman Connor Shaw leading up to Thursday night’s opener against Southern Miss.

The Rebels’ situation is more up in the air. The NCAA denied Masoli’s request for a waiver after his transfer from Oregon. Ole Miss is awaiting results of an appeal.

“We were devastated,” coach Houston Nutt said Wednesday. “We were hurt by the decision, but it’s like I told our guys: It’s life. It’s why football’s the greatest teacher there is. There’s going to be ups and downs. But it’s not over with Jeremiah. Hopefully by Friday we’ll get a different answer but if not, we’re getting two quarterbacks ready to go.”

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