Georgia should win the SEC East, but will it?

Alabama and Auburn will both have new quarterbacks, same as Georgia. Florida has a new coach. Almost half the league has new defensive coordinators. South Carolina is in retreat. The law of averages must surely apply to Missouri. Only Tennessee seems on a fast track from middling to good, but early losses could derail that.

So: Why not Georgia? The Bulldogs will have the nation’s best collection of running backs, a healthy-at-last difference-maker in receiver Malcolm Mitchell and a fairly stout offensive line. They’ll have two of the SEC’s better defenders in linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, and their secondary returns almost intact.

What’s not to like? There’s no clear favorite to start at quarterback, and for a throw-first team — under Mark Richt, Georgia has always loved to chuck it — that’s an issue. The defensive line is in flux, and defensive lines are a big deal in the SEC. And that seasoned secondary had its lapses in 2014.

Do the credits outweigh the debits? They should. Tennessee has moved mountains to upgrade its talent, but no Eastern team can match the Bulldogs man for man. Georgia’s schedule is a bit more difficult than in recent years, what with Alabama coming to Athens and the Auburn game at Jordan-Hare, but the Volunteers will get Arkansas in Knoxville and Bama in Tuscaloosa, so that’s close to a wash.

Georgia does play Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, and that could well be the game to decide the East. But back to our premise: Is there a tangible reason the Bulldogs can’t win in Big Orange Country? No, but “tangible” is a loaded word.

There was no tangible reason Georgia shouldn’t have won the East last season after stomping Missouri 34-0 in Columbia West on a day when Todd Gurley didn’t play. There was no tangible reason for the Bulldogs to be routed — not just beaten, routed — by a Florida team that would fire its coach 15 days later. Not since Urban Meyer left the Gators to spend time with his family has there been a tangible reason for Georgia not to win the East, and the Bulldogs did in 2011 and 2012. They didn’t in 2013 or 2014.

In a pre-Media Days session with local and national writers here Thursday, Richt was reminded — as if he needs reminding — that his Bulldogs haven’t won the SEC since 2005, his fifth season as Georgia’s coach. He’s about to begin his 15th. “Oh, yeah,” Richt said. “We do (need to win the league again). But that’s our goal every year. We’ll keep banging away, and we’ll get there.”

There was a time when I absolutely believed Georgia would. Once Richt righted the program in 2011, I again figured the world was his oyster, and sure enough …

On Dec. 1, 2012, Georgia stood five yards from the BCS title game. But time ran out, and nothing since has been quite so good. The path to the Dome was open each of the past two years; both times the Bulldogs tripped over themselves.

As for the here and now: There’s no tangible reason Georgia shouldn’t own the East in 2015. It has lavished huge salaries on an influential second-year defensive coordinator — some around the program identify Jeremy Pruitt as de facto co-coach — and a new offensive coordinator and a new line coach. It has redone the strength-and-conditioning program in Alabama’s image, surely a Pruitt touch. These coaches are about to get their indoor practice facility, which will remove another excuse.

Thing is, at some point Georgia must deliver. The SEC East won’t always be so flimsy. This window could slam shut. (Though with the heralded Jacob Eason en route, maybe not for a while.) There’s no reason this shouldn’t be a big year for the Bulldogs, but how many years felt the same in midsummer only to go south once the playing started?

“We’ll get there,” Richt said, but he has said that before.

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