College football power is a fluid hierarchy. Just ask the Auburn Tigers. This time last year, Auburn was reeling from a 3-9 season and a winless campaign in conference play. Now, first-year head coach Gus Malzahn has the Tigers preparing for the BCS National Championship Game.
The SEC East is no exception to the ever-changing tides of college football. Missouri rose from the rubble in 2013 while Florida declined and South Carolina won 10 regular-season games for the third straight year.
What do all these pendulum swings mean for the Georgia Bulldogs?
The Rise of Missouri
Missouri’s taking of the division championship was wildly unexpected after the Tigers’ disastrous entrance into the SEC in 2012. To be fair, injuries were a major factor last season, but it’s still awfully difficult to understand how a team that was simply mired by health issues failed to win more than two conference games. Case in point: A Georgia squad that was equally devastated by injuries this season still managed to rack up five SEC wins.
Nonetheless, the athleticism, speed and (at times) power that Missouri played with in 2013 proved not only that the Tigers could compete in this league but also that they could contend. That’s a scary proposition for both Georgia and the rest of the league.
The on-field implications of this newly strengthened Missouri team were immediately felt as a depleted Georgia squad failed to find success in every phase of the game against Missouri in a 41-26 loss in October.
And future ramifications of Missouri’s rise to prominence may prove equally challenging for the Bulldogs. Missouri has already picked up three commitments from the state of Georgia for the 2014 recruiting class. Most notably, Nate Brown, a 6’3” receiver, is heading to play for coach Gary Pinkel and the Tigers. The 4-star recruit is going to play ball 700 miles away rather than for the in-state Bulldogs.
The Decline of Florida
In some ways, Florida’s struggles in 2013 were predicated by issues in 2012. Lost in an 11-win season that saw the Gators drop just one regular-season game (a 17-9 loss to Georgia) were a number of ugly trends.
The Gator offense under then-coordinator Brent Pease was stagnant for much of the season, and put a tremendous amount of pressure on an elite defensive unit. While the Gators survived against several Top 25 opponents in 2012, wins against the likes of Tennessee, Bowling Green, Louisiana-Lafayette and a bad Missouri team were thoroughly uninspiring.
Like Georgia, the Gators also experienced an inordinate amount of injuries this year, but many of their problems (namely, the offense) were exposed in 2012 but overlooked. And while head coach Will Muschamp is making steps to right the ship (he fired Pease after the season), he’s yet to prove himself as a consistently capable head coach.
The Gators are just 13-11 in SEC play under Muschamp, and he’s yet to defeat the Georgia Bulldogs. For the first time since the early 1990s, the Bulldogs truly have the upper hand over the Gators.
Steve Spurrier, a constant thorn in the Dawgs’ side, just won’t go away. The Bulldogs defeated South Carolina for the first time in four tries in 2013, but the Gamecocks still weaseled their way ahead of Georgia in the divisional standings by year end.
While South Carolina loses several stars this year (quarterback Connor Shaw is a Gamecock legend and Jadeveon Clowney is likely a Top 5 draft selection), Spurrier has continued to build depth in Columbia, and the program seems built to contend for years to come.
The most immediate threat for Georgia is the Peach State talent that South Carolina continues to poach. Over the past three signing classes, the Gamecocks have signed 30 players from the state of Georgia. They already have three commitments from the state for the class of 2014.
Where Georgia Fits
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Until knocked off, Missouri, the league’s newcomer, remains king of the SEC East. With a number of weapons returning on both sides of the ball, the Tigers look to be formidable once again in 2014, and the way they handled Georgia (and almost everyone else in 2013) puts them in the leaders’ spot.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs find themselves in favorable position relative to the other contenders in the SEC East. Georgia returns considerably more on both sides of the ball than South Carolina in 2014, and Florida is very much behind the curve relative to the other power players in the division.
For Georgia to make strides toward another SEC East Championship in 2014 and put a stranglehold on the division moving forward, however, three things must happen.
First and foremost, Georgia must lock up in-state recruiting. It does not serve the Bulldogs to have the state’s best talent playing for these other challengers.
Secondly, Georgia must continue to win a majority of games against the regions upper echelon. Taking two out of three games from Missouri, South Carolina and Florida will always put the Bulldogs in contention.
Lastly, Georgia must fight off bottom-feeders. This year’s loss to Vanderbilt (a program on the rise, but a program that has not posted a single 10-win season in its history), hurt the Bulldogs as much as any setback. The Dawgs can ill-afford to handicap themselves with losses to the likes of Vanderbilt, Tennessee or Kentucky.
Accomplishing these three things opens the door the SEC Championship Game, and once that opportunity arises anything is possible—even the loftiest of coach Mark Richt's goals.
Last summer, Richt acknowledged to Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports that although he is most proud of the impact he's had on lives, he has other aspirations. "I'd like to have a national championship and a couple more SEC titles," he said.
While that may seem unrealistic for an 8-4 team, rising back to the top of the SEC East may make that a possibility.