Ninety-five percent of voters in a preseason media poll picked Georgia to win the SEC East, perhaps remembering that the Bulldogs won each of their games against division opponents by two touchdowns or more last year.
Such high expectations will get their first test Saturday at South Carolina, where the Bulldogs begin their quest for a second consecutive trip to the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I think we’re starting to realize we have to create our own identity,” Georgia senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said this week. “You can’t live in the past off of someone else’s hard work, and we’re going to have to put the hours in … to be where we want to be and to be as successful as we want to be.”
Two big-name SEC East programs are in transition, with new head coaches at Florida (Dan Mullen) and Tennessee (Jeremy Pruitt) after those teams endured awful seasons in 2017. But the Bulldogs open league play against an improving South Carolina program that was picked to finish second in the division by the preseason poll, albeit a distant second. (Georgia drew 271 of 285 first-place votes. South Carolina got eight.)
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Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game on CBS will either start the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs on the road to Atlanta or complicate their path.
It is a matchup of ranked teams after South Carolina (9-4, 5-3 SEC last season) moved into the Associated Press and coaches’ polls at No. 24 this week. Georgia is No. 3 in both polls. (Florida is the only other ranked team in the SEC East at No. 25 in both polls.)
Georgia-South Carolina also is a mathematically significant game in the division standings, even at this early point in the season. Saturday’s winner will have to lose at least two SEC games to relinquish the tiebreaker advantage it will hold over Saturday’s loser. And Georgia faces a more daunting draw from the SEC West (at LSU and home vs. Auburn) than South Carolina does (at Ole Miss and home vs. Texas A&M).
“I think we’ll leave that up to you guys,” Georgia defensive back J.R. Reed told reporters when asked about the SEC East implications of the game against the Gamecocks.
Georgia defeated South Carolina 24-10 in Athens last season, by far the Bulldogs’ closest SEC East game. Georgia won its other five games against intra-division opponents by an average of 34.4 points. Two years ago, on the Bulldogs’ most recent trip to Columbia, S.C., Georgia beat the Gamecocks 28-14.
“We had a hard-fought battle two years ago, and then last year’s game was probably one of the most physical we played in,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Obviously, (there are) challenges of going to Columbia and playing. We’ve talked to our kids about it a lot over the summer – an opportunity to go into an environment that’ll be as tough as any, as I well know from playing over there, from a crowd and a fan base (standpoint).”
Said South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, a former Georgia player: “This is going to be a physical, tough game, just like it was last year and just like it’s going to be every year.”
South Carolina’s defense is trying to build on a 2017 season in which it allowed the fifth fewest points in the SEC, while the Gamecocks’ offense is trying to improve on a 2017 season in which it scored the third fewest points in the league.
Muschamp promoted another former Georgia player, Bryan McClendon, to offensive coordinator after last season. McClendon will call plays in an SEC game for the first time Saturday. He was a Georgia assistant coach from 2009-15 and served as the Bulldogs’ interim head coach for the TaxSlayer Bowl at the end of the 2015 season following the firing of Mark Richt.
The opening week of this season offered no real insight into Georgia or South Carolina as both teams played overmatched non-conference opponents and won with predictable ease. But glimpses of insight into the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks and the SEC East should be found Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.