- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Georgia's thrilling 41-30 win over No. 6 South Carolina inside Sanford Stadium Saturday night set a familiar tone for the SEC Eastern Division: No lead or team is safe.
The 12th-ranked Bulldogs (1-1) went from being outmuscled a week prior in their heartbreaking loss to ACC foe Clemson, to doing most of the pushing around, as the Bulldogs catapulted themselves to the top of the East standings.
"The team that loses this game is waiting for the other's bus to break down," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Saturday. "We've been chasing them the last three years. South Carolina has a very good team, and this year, we get a chance to sit in the driver's seat. … We haven't been 1-0 in the league in a while because South Carolina's been getting us. Today, we got them, and I'm so thankful."
The road to Atlanta for the SEC championship game yet again has to go through Athens, but the Bulldogs are far from perfect ... just like the top contenders looking up at the Dawgs.
While Georgia's defense has given up 68 points and allowed an average of 460.5 yards to opposing offenses in the first two games of the season, South Carolina's defense struggled mightily on Saturday after Florida's offense developed a fear of the red zone in its unsettling 21-16 loss to Miami.
Georgia is in the driver's seat for its third consecutive SEC East title, but the East certainly hasn't been won two weeks into the season. If anyone should know that, it's Georgia.
The Bulldogs have a lot of flaws on defense. Things cleaned up against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks (1-1) still churned out 454 yards of offense, including 226 rushing yards, Saturday night. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw continues to show that he's a true gamer and he's helping those receivers grow more and more.
On the flip side, the Bulldogs showed that they can hang with anyone in any SEC shootout. Georgia piled up 538 total yards, watched Aaron Murray throw four touchdowns, and have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Todd Gurley (132 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries). Scoring points won't be a problem for the Bulldogs, but stopping them could be.
That's the opposite predicament No. 12 Florida (1-1) finds itself in after a bad loss to the Hurricanes. There's no question that the Gators have an elite defense, but even it couldn't save the offense like it did so many times last season. The offense, which registered 413 yards of offense (the most by Florida since gaining 403 yards against Vanderbilt on Oct. 13 last year), was totally inept inside the red zone.
The Gators took six trips inside Miami's 20-yard line and came away with just nine points and four turnovers. Two were Jeff Driskel interceptions, one was a Trey Burton fumble and another was a turnover on downs on a very questionable fourth-and-1 call.
Adding more salt to the Gators' wound, they missed a puzzling two-point conversion after their first touchdown.
"We moved the ball. We had more than 400 yards, mixed the run and pass well, did some good things at times,'' Florida coach Will Muschamp told reporters after Saturday's loss. "Bottom line, you can't continue to shoot yourself in the foot and give another team an opportunity, especially on the road."
Those shots came in the form of three lost fumbles, two interceptions and red zone failures. While Florida rediscovered the art of actually moving the ball down the field (and might have found capable receiving targets in Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton and Burton), mistakes and poor play calling ruined the Gators' chances of beating a less-talented Miami team.
But fear not Gators fans! The East is still in reach. A Miami loss means nothing in conference standings and that defense is only going to get better. By the looks of what Georgia and South Carolina did defensively, the Gators have a chance to squeak out some points against them.
For now, the attention is on Georgia and South Carolina because they have offenses that don't shrink near the goal line (well, minus that failed fourth-and-1 by the Gamecocks late Saturday). They have capable quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. We still don't know if the Gators do. But without a loss in conference play, Florida actually has the advantage over South Carolina, which now has to root for two Georgia losses.
However, the trio at the top still has some other hurdles to conquer. You have to wonder if Vanderbilt or even Missouri or Tennessee can help derail their trains to Atlanta. Nonconference cupcakes aside, Missouri and Tennessee are the only unbeaten teams in the East.
We know Vandy will challenge everyone going forward, but Mizzou and Tennessee still remain relative enigmas this early in the season. With far from perfect teams at the top, any one of these three could serve as a pesky pothole on the road to Atlanta. South Carolina gets its first taste of the rest of the East next week with a visit from Vandy.
Then there's the obstacle that is LSU that Florida and Georgia both face. The Tigers look like they could challenge for the Western Division title and should pose threats both offensively and defensively for the Gators and Dawgs.
Georgia is ahead of the pack, but if we've learned anything from the past few years, the East race to Atlanta is far from being paved in red and black.