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Georgia looks like a good bet to win SEC East, but that could change


Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks look to be Georgia's biggest threat to winning another SEC East title. (Getty Images)  
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks look to be Georgia's biggest threat to winning another SEC East title. (Getty Images)  

ATHENS, Ga. -- Fact: Georgia started 0-2 last season (with losses to No. 8 Boise State and No. 9 South Carolina) and then won 10 straight games to clinch a spot in the SEC Championship Game.

Fact: Georgia lost its final two games when it was dominated in that SEC title game by No. 1 LSU (42-10) and then blew a 16-0 lead and lost to Michigan State in triple overtime (33-30) in the Outback Bowl.

Fact: Georgia finished 10-4 and won the SEC East (for the first time since 2005) with a conference record of 7-1. The Bulldogs did not, however, play No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 LSU or No. 5 Arkansas from the SEC West.

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Fact: Georgia finished the 2011 season with the nation's No. 5 defense. Ten of 11 starters return for 2012.

Fact: Georgia returns the SEC's No. 2 passer in Aaron Murray, who threw for 3,149 yards and 35 touchdowns a season ago. Of the returning quarterbacks in FBS football for the coming season, only Southern California's Matt Barkley (37) threw for more touchdowns in 2011 than Murray.

Fact: For the second consecutive year, Georgia will not play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas.

Fact: The SEC has won six straight BCS championships and 10 national titles in the past 20 seasons. Georgia, however, has not won a national championship since 1980, when Herschel Walker was a freshman.

Fact: Georgia's play under coach Mark Richt has been at a pretty high level in the best conference in the land. Consider: Georgia has been playing football since 1892. In almost 120 seasons, Georgia has won 10 or more games just 19 times. Seven of those 10-win seasons have been posted in the past 11 years (2001-2011) under Richt.

Fact: This time a year ago Georgia was coming off a 6-7 season and Richt was starting to feel a little heat. After the 2011 season that talk ended and he was rewarded with a three-year contract extension through 2016. And, as a friend pointed out to me, you don't have to worry about Richt, a devout Christian, riding on motorcycles with blonde volleyball players.

Given all these facts, some good and some bad, what are we to make of Georgia's team and the program as the Bulldogs look ahead to their 12th season under Richt?

"I will say this," said Richt, who has 106 wins (9.6 per year) in his 11 seasons at Georgia. "After what we accomplished and the way we finished last year it didn't take much for our guys to get riled up at spring practice. They were ready to go."

There were a number of reasons for optimism in Bulldog Nation as spring practice concluded last Saturday.

Murray is certainly one of the two or three top quarterbacks in the SEC. He gets high marks for preparation, leadership and work ethic. But with 14 interceptions last season, the Tampa native needs to do a better job of taking care of the football.

"He can become more accurate," said Richt. "After you play the position for a while you sometimes try to do things that you shouldn't do."

Murray's top five wide receivers from a year ago all return. In fact, Georgia is so deep at wide receiver that their best player at the position, sophomore Malcolm Mitchell, worked at cornerback all spring. They believe he has the talent to be the next Champ Bailey.

With two highly regarded freshmen -- Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley -- coming into the program, Georgia is now very deep at running back. Isaiah Crowell was the SEC Freshman of the Year with 850 yards. He is very talented but still has durability and maturity issues.

"He's human. He's not perfect. But he's a guy moving in a good direction," Richt said of Crowell, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season.

Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line but Georgia finally has some depth at that position and one of the nation's best offensive linemen (John Theus of Jacksonville) arriving this summer.

And on defense? Jarvis Jones (13½ sacks) might be the nation's best outside linebacker. Alec Ogletree suffered a broken foot in the first game against Boise State and when he returned six games later was a terror. No school in the country has a better nose tackle combo than John Jenkins (6-feet-3, 351) and Kwame Geathers (6-6, 350).

"This group is talented but last season they learned about toughness," said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. "And the good news is that they can get better. A lot better."

"We have a lot of guys who have proved they can play SEC ball at a high level," said Richt. "We spent this spring looking for some more."

Here is another reason for Dawgs fans to be optimistic. The SEC East will again be wide open. Florida and Will Muschamp are still at least a year away. Derek Dooley at Tennessee had to replace seven -- that's right, seven -- assistant coaches. South Carolina lost its defensive coordinator (Ellis Johnson) and its go-to receiver (Alshon Jeffery). The Gamecocks' best player, running back Marcus Lattimore, is still recovering from knee surgery.

So while all the outward signs point to Georgia as a favorite to win another SEC East championship, not everybody is on the bandwagon. There are parts of the fan base that want to be shown.

They want to be shown that Georgia's 10 straight wins last season were a product of a good team and not a favorable schedule.

Another fact: Only four of the 10 opponents in that streak finished the 2011 season with winning records: Mississippi State (7-6), Florida (7-6), Auburn (8-5) and Georgia Tech (8-5). Georgia won seven straight SEC games after losing 45-42 against South Carolina in Athens, but those seven teams had a combined conference record of 14-42. Auburn was 4-4 and the other six opponents had losing records in the SEC. Included in that group were 0-8 Ole Miss and 1-7 Tennessee.

They want to be shown that Georgia can overcome the suspensions of three defensive backs and Ogletree for various offenses. Safety Bacarri Rambo has, according to his high school coach, been suspended for the first four games after failing a second random drug test. One starting cornerback, Sanders Commings (domestic violence), has been suspended for the first two games. The other, Branden Smith (arrested for marijuana possession), is likely to be suspended after the legal process runs its course. Ogletree, according to a number of reports, could miss as many as four games.

It should be pointed out that Georgia is one of only two SEC schools (Kentucky is the other) that gives game suspensions on the first positive drug test.

"We're all discouraged when those things happen," said Richt. "When you're working with young people -- or old people for that matter -- things are not going to always turn out the way you want. The question is, when you do have a problem what do you do about it? Are you going to admit it? Are you doing to take your discipline like a man and grow from it?"

They want to be shown that Georgia can survive two trips to Columbia. The first is in Missouri on Sept. 8 as the Tigers play their first SEC game.

"It will be one of the most historic moments in their football history," said Richt. "We have to be ready for it but we have a lot at stake too."

The second Columbia trip will be to South Carolina on Oct. 6. Steve Spurrier loves beating Georgia. He has won 15 of 19 meetings against the Bulldogs as a head coach. Spurrier recently told Chris Low of ESPN.com that he will miss playing Georgia in the usual time slot (the second Saturday in September).

"I sort always liked playing them the second game because you could always count on them have two or three key players suspended," he told Low in a classic Spurrier jab.

Win those two games and the schedule sets up nicely for Georgia. South Carolina, conversely, has to play at LSU and host Arkansas, which has beaten the Gamecocks by a combined score of 85-48 the past two years.

"A lot of people want to say that Georgia's schedule is this or that," said Richt. "I don't think there is such a thing as a light schedule in our league. That's for sure."

But in the SEC some schedules are tougher than others. For the second straight year Georgia will have a good team that gets a break on the schedule.

And that's a fact.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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