It's a fact of life in the SEC that championships are won and lost on a handful of annual showdowns, occasionally shifting in location but never in importance: For almost two decades now, the round robins between Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the East and Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the West have consistently set the pecking order before the calendar turns to November.
Traditionally, Georgia-South Carolina is not one of those games. Which says a lot about just how fundamentally Carolina's presence at the top of the SEC East forecasts this summer has overturned traditional assumptions.
Or should that read, how fundamentally Florida, Georgia and Tennessee's absence has overturned those assumptions? The Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers dominated the East for so long — 18 straight division titles between them between 1992, when the league split into two divisions, and 2009, without so much as a single shared crown from South Carolina — that the Gamecocks' only chance to come out on top was in the one miraculous season that saw all three overlords simultaneously fall on hard times. Finally, 2010 was that season: Florida, Georgia and Tennessee shriveled away with new quarterbacks, new defensive coordinators and a combined 10-14 SEC record between them, and South Carolina was just good enough to elbow its way into the void — and then to get trounced, 56-17, in the most lopsided SEC Championship Game to date, and nearly knocked out of the final polls with a bowl loss to Florida State.
If last year was opportunistic, though, this year has the makings of a full-fledged arrival. There's a fifth-year senior quarterback, Stephen Garcia, whose McConaugheyian reputation overshadows the fact that he may be the best returning starter in the SEC; even if he's not, he has the best run-catch duo in America in Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery to make him look like he is, anyway. There's the best returning pass rusher in the league, Devin Taylor, and the best incoming pass rusher, freakish freshman Jadeveon Clowney. There's the veteran offensive line and secondary. And there's a schedule that conveniently omits both Alabama and LSU from the cross-divisional exchange. Neither Florida nor Georgia has as much going for it on paper, and neither was as good as South Carolina in 2010 to begin with.
All of which could just as easily be whisked away on the second Saturday of the season, nearly a year to the day after last year's run began with Lattimore's tackle-breaking manifesto in Columbia. Given the tiebreakers involved, it's a matter of simple math: The last SEC team to play in the championship game after losing its conference opener to a division rival was Arkansas in 2002, and that was only because the actual winner in the West, Alabama, was barred from the postseason. The only other team that pulled it off is Peyton Manning-led Tennessee in 1997, which rebounded from its annual September loss to Florida (with a little help along the way from LSU and Georgia) to win the SEC for the first time since the split.
Otherwise, it's almost an immutable law: In this league, when you fall behind out of the gate, you don't catch back up. And if you're South Carolina, you simply drift back into the old, familiar pack.
For Georgia, the question is even more fundamental — not as a litmus test for a hyped team, but as a gauge for the future of an entire administration. Since opening on top of the preseason polls three years ago, Georgia has staggered through escalating stages of disillusion, beginning with the disappointment that comes from an obviously missed opportunity and continuing last year with the shellshock that comes with enduring your first losing season in more than a decade. This is a team that's underachieved to various degrees three years in a row, and sent multiple bodies overboard — a defensive coordinator and a pair of assistants, a longtime strength coach — in its efforts to stay afloat. It also begins the season as a team that's lost eight of its last ten against ranked opponents, and that lost its last game to Central Florida. And that goes into its first game this year as a slight underdog to Boise State, just a week before the Gamecocks come to Athens.
That game is critical to the Bulldogs' pride for the sake of not losing to Boise State in front of the cool kids (even if the Broncos happen to be at least as good as most of them). But South Carolina commands all the cards on the table, right up front: Four years removed from its last serious run at an SEC championship, is Georgia still capable of winning this conference? Of winning this division?
If the answer is "yes," it has to be able to beat a team it used to own on its own home field to get the ball rolling. If it's "no," the answer will come quickly, and Mark Richt will suffer the heat accordingly for the rest of the season. Given the current temperature under his seat, it may not be able to withstand any more.