There are two narratives that you could look at to evaluate the race for the top spot in the SEC East this year, and to some extent they are the same thing. First, can Georgia keep from losing that one game that always seems to get away when it matters? And second, can Missouri take the Rodney Dangerfield route to yet another division title? The answer to one of those questions being "yes" vastly improves the odds that the answer to the other question will be "no."
Because on paper, Georgia should win the SEC East this year. Not going away, perhaps; there are enough holes in the Bulldogs' roster and enough difficult games on the schedule to think that at least a loss or two is lurking in the next few months. But each team in the division -- including Missouri -- is confronting its own share of questions and uncertainties. An unstoppable force like Nick Chubb at running back and the program's track record under Mark Richt are enough in a season like this one to overlook the murky outlook for the quarterback position and a few significant losses on defense and peg Georgia as the best of a weak division.
But that track record on the part of Mark Richt -- that's the thing that might concern you a bit. Granted, every team gacks up an upset every now and then; what's alarming is the frequency and important of those upsets when it comes to Georgia. Last year, a win over either South Carolina or Florida, two teams that combined to go 7-9 in the SEC, would have been enough to send Georgia to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Instead, a narrow loss to South Carolina and a blowout loss to Florida destroyed Georgia's division hopes and sent a Missouri team that Georgia had beaten by 34 points in Columbia to the title event.
There's nothing new about this. In 2007, Georgia lost to a South Carolina team that failed to make a bowl and got annihilated by a Tennessee team that would finish 10 spots behind the Bulldogs; the Volunteers went to the SEC Championship Game, and the absence from that event might have cost Georgia a chance at a national title. Another chance at a national title went by the boards in 2002, when the eventual No. 3 team in the land lost to Florida, which ended up on the fringes of the rankings at 8-5. And that doesn't count other, less important head-scratchers like the 2006 loss at Vanderbilt, the Commodores' lone SEC win that year.
I am not one of those who thinks that Georgia should fire Mark Richt, except in the sense that I as a South Carolina fan would like the possibility that they might hire a less talented coach. But I can understand some fans' frustration at the near-misses that loom large in Richt's tenure. And it's the one thing that gives me a little bit of pause about crowning his team the presumptive favorite to win the SEC East.
That said: The Dawgs are as good as any team in the SEC East, and probably a good sight better. Just look at that run game. Keith Marshall is a third-stringer -- and an "OR" on the third string at that. Nick Chubb leads the way. Behind him is Sony Michel and Marshall and Brendan Douglas and presumably about a dozen other great running backs cranked out in a factory somewhere in the bowels of Sanford Stadium.
The secondary should be fine. Three starters are back after Georgia held opposing offenses to a 105.79 passing efficiency last year, in part because of 16 interceptions. The players responsible for 10 of those picks are back. The only concern there is that the roster runs a little thin; a single injury, and at least one and possibly two true freshmen will be on the field. The linebacking corps is also set up pretty well, with lead returning tackler Jordan Jenkins (70 tackles, five sacks) and Leonard Floyd (55 tackles, six sacks) returning.
There are two things that might concern me if I were a Georgia fan, and one only mildly. At some point, Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey is going to have to throw. (Maybe. With Nick Chubb, there is a distinct possibility that a passing game is entirely superfluous.) The protection will be there with an offensive line that has four returning starters. But will the receivers be there? I mean, Malcolm Mitchell has shown flashes of quality before, and it's not like the Dawgs were lighting up secondaries last year. But losing Michael Bennett and Chris Conley is no small thing. Ultimately, Richt's track record of molding inexperienced quarterbacks into at least adequate starters makes this a little less concerning. And Hutson Mason threw the ball fewer than 20 times in seven games last season while Georgia won 10, so it's not a huge concern.
The defensive line, however. The four starters and co-starters on the Lousiana-Monroe depth chart had a combined five starts in 2014. The learning curve could be steep for that unit, and they don't have much time, with the always-tricky game against South Carolina and a visit from Alabama in the first five games.
* * *
Meanwhile, over in Columbia, Mo., they might be feeling a bit neglected again. The two-time reigning division champions are a consensus pick for third place in the division, caught behind Georgia (perhaps for good reason) and Tennessee (everyone's dark horse in 2015, as if everyone having a dark horse doesn't defeat the meaning of the term).
But hard as it is for Missouri fans to take SEC pundits seriously at this point, there might be some reason for the skepticism this year. The top four pass catchers from 2014 are gone. Tight end Sean Culkin, who had 20 receptions for 174 yards, is the most prolific player to return. The leading wide receiver to come back had 45 yards. On five catches. If #MAUKTOBER had continued through Maty Mauk's first full season as a starter, that might be one thing. But a 120.8 passer efficiency rating and a 53.4 percent completion rate isn't going to kick any All-SEC buzz, much less awards talk.
One thing the Tigers do have going for them on offense is Russell Hansbrough. The senior already has a 1,000-yard season to his name. The offensive line was overhauled in the offseason so that it's a bit tricky to talk about returning starts too much, but suffice it to say that there's experience and talent there. Hansbrough should be able to get some room to run. Whether he can make up for a passing game that's being reconstructed virtually from the ground up is another question.
Yes, the defense does lose Markus Golden and Shane Ray, but then, we've seen this movie before. It's hard to see the new defensive ends combining for nearly 25 sacks this year, but betting against Craig Kuligowski fielding a qualify defensive line is a fool's errand at this point, and one in which I no longer care to participate. Opponents aren't likely to gash Mizzou with the run too badly, and opposing quarterbacks will spend a fair portion of their lives scrambling when they play the Tigers. Until I have reason to stop believing this will be the case, I won't.
There are fewer questions at the linebacking spots. The team's top two tacklers in runaway fashion last year, Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer, are back. They had 122 and 114 tackles, respectively, in 2014. The secondary is also as close to intact as can reasonably be expected in college football, though the loss of Braylon Webb, who led the team in interceptions with four and had 70 tackles, will likely have an impact.
Sure, Missouri's losing some key pieces, but if we start removing teams from contention because they have an iffy passing game and a couple of questions on defense, there's a broad swath of teams that are already out of the running for the SEC title. Somebody has to give Georgia and perhaps Tennessee a run for their money, and it might as well be Missouri.
And as much as we might joke about Missouri's ability to MacGyver its way to division titles -- it keeps doing so. At some point, Gary Pinkel and his crew are going to stop winning championships simply because nobody wins them all, but to dismiss the idea out of hand seems like something less than the wisest thing to do right now.
So: Can Georgia win all the games it should win? If so, there are too many good reasons to favor the Bulldogs in the race for the wild, wild East. If not, there could be another opening for an underdog Missouri team, and they've shown themselves more than capable of taking advantage of those before.
The perfect season (for Georgia): Nick Chubb keeps churning out the numbers that made him a freshman sensation last year, putting himself in the thick of the Heisman race if he doesn't run away with it. The new quarterback does alright, and that's probably enough. The defense steps up. Georgia ambushes Alabama in Athens, avoids the mental hiccup game and heads to Atlanta undefeated or with a single loss -- putting a playoff appearance well within their grasp.
The nightmare (for Georgia): Nick Chubb is found to have signed some piece of memorabilia in exchange for money, and it turns out that Sony Michel was the bagman. The new quarterback is unable to get into a rhythm, and the defense allows opponents to run all over it. Vanderbilt or (more likely) South Carolina spring an early upset, and the Alabama game is a beatdown. Georgia's ceiling drops to somewhere around 6-6, and we all have another summer season of 'MARK RICHT IS ON THE HOT SEAT' think pieces.
What actually happens (for Georgia): The schedule is actually pretty brutal. Both Alabama and Auburn are on the dock for the Dawgs this year, and Georgia Tech should be good. A two-loss season should be viewed as something of an achievement, which probably means a playoff berth is a long shot. But even if Georgia has two SEC losses, they should be strong enough to hold off an underwhelming SEC East.
The perfect season (for Missouri): The light goes on for Maty Mauk, while Russell Hansbrough puts together a 1,400-yard season. The Missouri defensive line turns out to be the Missouri defensive line all over again. The Tigers go 6-0 in the run-up to the game at Georgia, then stun the Dawgs in Athens. There's still a loss or two on the schedule -- the last four games are tricky -- but the Tigers are able to ride their early lead to the SEC Championship Game.
The nightmare (for Missouri): Mauk stays where he is or even takes a step back with most of his receivers gone, and teams zero in on Hansbrough as the only dangerous figure on the offense. The defensive line does take a couple of steps backwards, and loses to South Carolina, Florida and Georgia in consecutive weeks. The Tigers might be able to squeeze one win out of the remaining non-Vanderbilt games, but a lower-rung postseason berth is all they can hope for.
What actually happens (for Missouri): There's no reason this team shouldn't start 4-0, and 5-1 before the Georgia game is the most likely outcome of the first half of the season. But then the wins could get tougher to come by. The good news is that two of the final four games are in Columbia, and another one is in Kansas City. Eight or nine wins should be doable.