SEC East still there for Georgia’s taking

When Georgia loses an early-season football game, the reaction among the apoplectic masses usually is along the lines of, “Fire Mark Richt,” or, “Doomed, doomed, we’re Liberty Bowl doomed.”

But this might be a good season to avoid obsessing over September results.

Georgia plays host to Tennessee on Saturday. It will be the first of seven consecutive conference games for the Bulldogs, which ultimately will define their season. The Dogs are 0-1 in the SEC, but we’ve come to realize the East Division isn’t a haven for the conference elite.

Every school in the East that has played at least one conference game has lost. That includes South Carolina (2-1), Florida (1-1), Georgia (0-1), Kentucky (0-1) and Vanderbilt (0-2).

Missouri and Tennessee haven’t lost conference games, but neither has played one, and nobody is projecting greatness on either campus.

There are two ways of looking at the East: 1) It’s competitive (coach-speak); or 2) It’s lousy (miserable-media-speak).

Regardless of the adjectives, bottom-line perceptions are the same. No team is running away with the division. Therefore, Georgia’s loss at South Carolina isn’t necessarily a game that will stain its season, no matter how many old Mike Bobo jerseys have been burned in the past two weeks.

Even Mark Richt, generally guarded when asked about the future, acknowledged as much when asked about the significance of the loss in Columbia.

“You lose the first one and your back is truly against the wall, and we’re thinking we have no margin for error,” Richt said. “All you can do is battle like mad and hope you get it. (But) I don’t know if you can say somebody is a totally dominant team who’s going to blaze a trail and kick everyone’s rear end. Everyone has their challenges.”

Georgia is favored by 17 1/2 points over Tennessee. The team is almost certain to be favored over every opponent the rest of the season, with the possible exception of Auburn on Nov. 15 at Sanford Stadium. Point spreads don’t guarantee victories, but they illustrate the potential upside for the remainder of the regular season.

Does Georgia need help? Sure. But consider the rest of the East:

South Carolina, the consensus preseason pick to win the East, is 3-1. But after being fortunate to escape with a win over Vanderbilt — which followed the bit of fortune against Georgia, the struggle with East Carolina and the loss to Texas A&M — coach Steve Spurrier said, "The way we play is embarrassing. We've all seen good football teams — we ain't one."

Also noteworthy: South Carolina’s remaining schedule includes road games at Auburn and at Florida. Richt could have been referring to Auburn coming to Athens but hosting South Carolina when he said Tuesday, “I think home-field advantage might mean more this season than other seasons.”

  •  Florida needed triple overtime to beat Kentucky. They're not going anywhere.
  •  Missouri hasn't played a conference game, but lost to Indiana. The SEC might want to consider a bylaw that reads, "Losing to Indiana counts as a conference loss. Or maybe two."
  • Tennessee is improving. But realistically, how high can expectations be for a program that is 4-20 in the SEC over the past three seasons?
  • Kentucky (0-1) and Vanderbilt (0-2) are off the radar. They might want to get comfortable there.

It was an amusing oversimplification when Georgia linebacker Amarlo Herrera said, “We’ve just got to win every game we play. Simple.” But nothing about the East race appears daunting.

Richt also can point to 2011 and 2012, when Georgia lost to South Carolina but finished 7-1 in the conference, won the East and played for the SEC title. In 2007, the Dogs lost to the Gamecocks to open SEC play. They failed to play for the conference championship but went 11-2 overall, won the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 2 in the rankings.

“We have to wait for somebody to beat South Carolina, so that’s always an iffy situation,” center David Andrews said. “But I think we’ve seen that over the last few years that everybody in the SEC usually loses at some point.”

So there’s little reason for panic. Unless they lose to Tennessee.