Aaron Murray hopes to lead the Bulldogs back to Atlanta.
The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.
Georgia or South Carolina: Which Team Will Win the SEC East in 2012?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Steve Spurrier must be confident in this year’s team, since he’s bringing some of his old, familiar swagger to interviews. I’d be inclined to agree with him. If Marcus Lattimore is healthy and Connor Shaw is the answer at quarterback, South Carolina is the top team in the SEC East. Shaw accounted for 22 touchdowns (14 passing, eight rushing) in the final eight games with wins over Florida, Clemson and Nebraska. Lattimore was near the top of the Heisman mix before he blew out his knee against Mississippi State. I’m excited to see what the offense can do when both are healthy and on their games. Meanwhile, the defense ranked third in the nation in yards allowed per game. This wasn’t the Alabama or LSU defense, but the Gamecocks were in the discussion for the national No. 3. Spurrier has good reason to be confident -- until he looks at the schedules for Georgia and South Carolina. He’ll have to take his team to LSU and face Arkansas at home. The Razorbacks may be reeling from the Petrino departure, but Tyler Wilson carved up the stout South Carolina defense for a 44-28 win in Fayetteville. Georgia may be just as good a team as South Carolina, but the Bulldogs again have a fortunate schedule that skips Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. In 11 seasons under Mark Richt, Georgia has played the West winner only four times during the regular season. Two of those West champs were Auburn, whom Georgia plays every year. Avoiding the West champ probably happens again this year for Georgia, but the Bulldogs have to visit South Carolina. The division may come down to that game, so I’m going to favor South Carolina in the East.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
For the second straight year the SEC East crown will come down to Georgia and South Carolina. And despite Steve Spurriers' best efforts, overall SEC record will still determine the East champion. Just like 2011, the schedule will likely be the deciding factor. Carolina luckily won the head-to-head last fall and finished 5-0 within the division, but managed to inexplicably stumble to an inferior opponent in Auburn — at home, nonetheless. A trip to Arkansas also ended in ugly fashion for the Cocks, giving them a 1-2 crossover record. Georgia, meanwhile, didn't have to face LSU, Alabama or Arkansas and rolled through its crossover schedule at 3-0, including a 38-point dismantling of the same Auburn team that defeated the Gamecocks.
The schedules are even more lopsided in 2012. Carolina will once against face Arkansas, although the home game against the Hogs got dramatically easier without Bobby Petrino on the sidelines, but adds a road trip to LSU. Georgia will again miss all three western powers and instead faces Ole Miss at home and Auburn on the road. The saving grace for Carolina could be hosting this year's contest with the Dawgs on October 6.
On paper, I like South Carolina. They have a better offensive line, better running game and are just as stout on the defensive side of the ball, especially considering Georgia's pending suspensions. Neither team gets the clear advantage in the coaching department but the Bulldogs gets an edge at the ever-important quarterback position. However, it's hard to see South Carolina — who defeated average Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi State teams by a combined 18 points last year — not losing at least two games in league play this fall. They have to beat Georgia and Arkansas at home without slipping up against any other Eastern Division team to top Georgia (because they won't defeat LSU in Death Valley). And Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Vanderbilt should all be improved in 2012 from last fall. So I will stick with the defending SEC East champs (for the time being) as the pick to get to Atlanta.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Both Georgia and South Carolina should be among the top 10-15 teams in college football this year, but I have to give a slight edge to Georgia. The Bulldogs are loaded with talent at the skill positions, and quarterback Aaron Murray is back for his junior year. Running back Isaiah Crowell seems more focused than he was last season, which should give him a chance to rush for 1,000 yards. The biggest question on Georgia’s offense is the line. Three key starters are gone, leaving Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee as the most experienced returnees. Sorting out the left tackle and center positions will be the top preseason priority for coach Mark Richt. The defense figures to be one of the SEC’s best with 10 starters returning.
There’s no question Steve Spurrier has South Carolina on the right track to becoming a consistent contender in the SEC East. The Gamecocks have won 20 games over the last two years and now want to take the next step and make a BCS bowl appearance. If quarterback Connor Shaw picks up where he left off last year, South Carolina should easily improve off last season’s ranking of 95th in passing offense. Running back Marcus Lattimore is recovering from a torn ACL, but all indications point to a full return by the fall. The defense has some holes to fill, especially with the departures of linemen Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Antonio Allen.
Last year’s East title was decided by just a game and another tight race can be expected once again. Georgia has a huge advantage in schedule, especially since they don’t play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West. South Carolina’s crossover schedule features a home date against the Razorbacks and a tough road date against LSU. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs in their head-to-head matchup once again, but Georgia wins the division and represents the East in the SEC title game.
Barrett Sallee, Lead SEC Blogger for Bleacher Report (@BarrettSallee)
This is a tough one because South Carolina is the more talented team, but games at LSU and at home vs. Arkansas make me inclined to pick the Bulldogs. Georgia misses Arkansas, LSU and Alabama from the West, so I think that by virtue of the schedule, Georgia is more likely to wind up playing in the SEC Championship Game. Georgia's defense wasn't on the same level as LSU and Alabama last season, but it was pretty darn close—and they will ride that defense to another solid season.
However, Georgia is facing a trip to Missouri in Week 2 with several starters on defense suspended. If the Tigers top the Bulldogs in Columbia, it will throw the entire division up in the air—and South Carolina will probably find its way to the Georgia Dome.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
This question is a tough one because I’m not sure that the answer lies with the better team. Both teams are very close, but Georgia has to be the favorite based on a better schedule draw on teams from the SEC West. The Bulldogs will face Auburn and Ole Miss, while the Gamecocks have a tougher slate in traveling to LSU and hosting Arkansas. South Carolina may be favored to win the head-to-head matchup against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium, but LSU will be a difficult trip and the Razorbacks have beaten Steve Spurrier’s club by double-digits three years in a row. Georgia does have offensive line issues and early suspensions to some top defenders, but Mark Richt’s bunch has an easier path to get back to Atlanta for a second-straight season. South Carolina could be the better team if Connor Shaw picks up where he left off at the end of last year, but I’ll give Georgia and its top defense the slight edge to win the SEC East.
Other SEC Spring Preview Content:
Ranking the SEC's Running Backs for 2012
Ranking the SEC's Quarterbacks for 2012
Ranking the SEC's Head Coaches for 2012
Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012
Missouri or Texas A&M: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat