Five years ago, it looked like Urban Meyer was going to own the SEC East indefinitely. Coming off of a national title with most of the team back, could anyone stop this juggernaut? Certainly not Georgia, which was sinking as its defense deteriorated, or South Carolina, which couldn't find its footing as Steve Spurrier struggled to rebuild the roster and change the culture.
The Meyer era at Florida blew up spectacularly in Atlanta that year, and the Gamecocks and Bulldogs ended up filling the vacuum in the time since. They've been the consensus picks for the top two slots in the division each season since 2011, one of the two of them went to the SEC Championship Game from 2010-12, and that streak would have carried forward in 2013 if not for South Carolina's head scratching loss to Tennessee.
Still, it's a rivalry that has an odd feel compared to most. They always play early in the season, so they never have the late-season apocalyptic battle that so many rivalries do. Since 2010, their game hasn't actually ever decided the East in such a way where one of them won the division but reversing the game's outcome would send the other. A Georgia win in 2010 would have sent Florida to Atlanta, Georgia made the SECCG in 2011-12 in spite of losses to South Carolina, and a South Carolina win in 2013 would have sent the Gamecocks at the expense of Missouri, not UGA.
They come into this season with different things to prove.
For South Carolina, it's about proving that winning 11 games in three consecutive seasons was about more than Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney. The Gamecocks were not a two-man team those years, of course, but winning ten or 11 again would be the way to prove it to fans and media types who haven't been paying close attention. Winning 11 games in more than three consecutive seasons is a rare thing; Spurrier never did it at Florida, and guys like Nick Saban and Les Miles haven't ever done it (though Saban is on an active three-year streak of his own). And of course, Spurrier wants to win the first ever SEC title at a second school to cement his claim to being the best SEC head coach since Bear Bryant.
For Georgia, it's about winning its first SEC title in almost a decade. Mark Richt still hasn't seen the success he had with Brian VanGorder as his defensive coordinator. Todd Grantham was an improvement over Willie Martinez, but he couldn't push the team over the top before wearing out his welcome. Jeremy Pruitt has a great pedigree, having coached under Saban and being a national championship-winning defensive coordinator. Richt's offenses have been good to great most years. Can this be the year the Bulldogs put the pieces together?
Per usual, the teams play in early September. It'll be Georgia's second game and South Carolina's third. Neither has a true cupcake ahead of time; UGA plays Clemson, while South Carolina gets Texas A&M and a pretty good East Carolina team. Georgia does get a bye, but this early in the season, it probably doesn't matter. These teams are what they've been for years, and injuries and fatigue aren't likely to be a factor yet. South Carolina might wish it had more time to study what Pruitt's defense does against Clemson, but it has had the offseason to review film of Pruitt's work at FSU.
The teams are in a bit of a similar spot. They have senior quarterbacks taking over as first year starters. They feature great running backs who will be playing on Sundays next year, barring injury. They even replace the same number of starters on defense (five).
Their game may or may not decide the division between the two of them, but one of them is likely to be spending the beginning of December in Atlanta.