Both CBS Sports and ESPN have Georgia as one of the top 11 teams in the country – and both have the Bulldogs as the best team in the SEC East for the third time in four years. Its hard to imagine that Georgia, a team that seven days ago figured out how to lose rather than win the Gator Bowl, would be back in Atlanta to play (presumably) Alabama, but that's what the belief is. One has to imagine that the winner of the 2014 SEC Championship will be in the College Football Playoff – the loser might, too.
Even though the winner of the Georgia-South Carolina game has won the SEC East only once since 2006, that game shapes up to be another important game for both schools.
The theme in both pre-season polls was the amount of players that Georgia lost to injury and how many of them return. "If the Bulldogs' collection of injured receivers can return to full strength in 2014, this is still the likely SEC East favorite," CBS's Jerry Hinnen writes. Mark Schlabach of ESPN adds: "Georgia might bring back six starters on offense, along with top receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall, who suffered season-ending injuries."
And then there is replacing Aaron Murray: "The Bulldogs will have to replace record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray, but rising senior Hutson Mason performed pretty well in two starts after Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury," Schlabach writes. "Aaron Murray's gone, but Todd Gurley isn't," Hinnen adds.
The big thing to consider – at least in terms of the national perception of Georgia – is that the Bulldogs are at a point with their program that even a disappointing 8-5 season hasn't changed the outlook of the program nationally.
In other words this ain't 2009 and 2010.
Georgia has flaws – its defense was disastrous at times in 2013; it has to replace arguably its top offensive playmaker of the last decade; it needs to be more consistent in the return game on special teams – but to only see Georgia's flaws is very, how do you say Larry Munson-like? Other programs have flaws, too.
South Carolina returns running back Mike Davis, but loses the bulk of their core of the last three years with the departure of Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Bruce Ellington and Victor Hampton. One has to wonder just how well Dylan Thompson will play during an entire season rather than just in spots. Time will tell.
Missouri is only ranked by CBS – and will have to deal with losses on its defensive line. ESPN did not rank the Tigers in the top 25. Florida? The Gators are just trying to stay above water right now with Florida State winning the national title and after finishing the season at 4-8. Florida was ranked #25 by ESPN and will install "a fast-paced system for rising senior quarterback Jeff Driskel."
The season in front of Georgia remains challenging in terms of the schedule – but not nearly as challenging as 2013. Clemson (ranked #16 and #18) heads to Athens without the merry band of touchdown scorers – Tajh Boyd, Roderick McDowell, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant – who helped them to "be the first team from the state of South Carolina to win a BCS game". (Side note: Anyone think Clemson-South Carolina is getting a little Auburn-Alabama of late? Watch out palmetto trees.)
The trip to Columbia follows an early-season open date. But then Georgia goes a month before playing a pre-season ranked team – Missouri. The annual trip to Jacksonville is on the first day of November.
Then the biggest game of the season – according to the early polls – kicks off in Athens against Auburn. The Tigers have not won in Athens since 2005, and spent one of their two one-in-a-decade miracles on the Dawgs to win on the Plains last year. The Tigers, ranked #5 by ESPN and #4 by CBS, return about half of their defense (which played well in Pasadena, but below average much of the year) and Nick Marshall on offense. The interesting thing about the Tigers will be how they deal with a challenging schedule that includes road trips to Athens, Kansas State and Alabama and games with Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina in Auburn.