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Early look: Georgia kicks off November gauntlet for South Carolina

After dominating the rivalry for years, Georgia has recently seen more of a challenge from South Carolina

Georgia Bulldogs Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

For a rivalry to be called a rivalry, does the series have to be competitive?

This is an argument normally reserved for fans bickering among one another on message boards and Twitter threads. “This isn’t a rivalry because so-and-so hasn’t beaten so-and-so in ten years.” You know, that argument.

But there is some legitimacy to this issue. On wikipedia a sports rivalry is defined as “...intense competition between athletic teams or athletes.” So intense competition should require some kind of competitiveness right? It’s hard to ramp up intensity when it’s almost guaranteed one side will lose.

Well in the case of the rivalry between the Georgia Bulldogs and the South Carolina Gamecocks, it would have been hard to call the series a rivalry for a long time. In the 38 meetings from 1894 to 1983 Georgia claimed victory in 29 of those games and in 19 of those games South Carolina was held to single-digit points.

But even from 1984 to 2006 South Carolina was 7-14 against Georgia. It wasn’t until Steve Spurrier got his mitts on the program that the South Carolina-Georgia game started to look the part of a rivalry. Since 2007 — ten meetings to count — the series is deadlocked 5-5.

Now that’s a rivalry.

In that ten year period the match ups between SC and UGA have mostly been appointment viewing. Seven of the games have been decided by 11 points or less and almost always had major implications as to who would represent the East Division in Atlanta. It’s been fun for both sides, and now we’re at the dawn of a new chapter in this recent rivalry’s history.

Out are Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt — the two coaches who became the face of the rivalry in the last ten years — and in come Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp. Both are cut from a similar cloth as disciples of Nick Saban, having served under him at LSU and the Miami Dolphins.

Now they’re in charge of keeping the rivalry as riveting as it was under Spurrier and Richt, though last season’s inaugural contest was not a good start.

For starters, the game was held on Sunday because Hurricane Matthew pushed it back on account on inclement weather. Then the game played out in a way many fans had come used to watching Will Muschamp’s brand of Florida football: defense-heavy with a lack of exciting offense.

Jacob Eason completed five of his 17 passes for 29 yards while South Carolina rushed for 30 yards at 1.2 yards a carry while committed three turnovers. Even as South Carolina managed to bring the score within a touchdown with 1:33 left on the clock, Georgia took the ensuing onside kick for a touchdown. It was an appropriate end to an ugly game.

But by most accounts, this year’s edition of the game should be much better. To go along with the improvements South Carolina is supposed to make, many preseason publications and predictions have Georgia winning the East and having the looks of a top-15 team this season.

For starters, the defense is projected to be a staunch group this coming fall. Ten starters return off a unit ranked 34th in defensive S&P with the only loss coming at defensive end. By most accounts Georgia’s DL, LB and DB groups are each ranked top-five in the conference.

The defensive line was a top-35 unit in rushing the passer and a top-50 unit in stopping the run. Edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy both passed on the NFL Draft last season to come back and will be a nightmare for opponents in pass protection.

The depth will be a mix of talented freshman and vets, but whatever way you want to slice it Georgia’s defense should be a top-25 unit this season and would be a disappointment to be anything less. But what’s going to make the difference for Georgia this season as to whether or not their team is elite is the offense.

Last season the offense was bad -- there’s just no other way to say it. Eason looked like a freshman in every sense of the word as a passer while Nick Chubb and Sony Michel split carries through off-and-on injuries. All of that resulted in an offense ranked 93rd in S&P, and now Georgia will have to replace three offensive lineman and their leading receiver.

If the defense is as good as it’s projected to be, all the offense really needs to do is run block well enough for Chubb and Michel to carry the offense as Eason progresses as a passer. If the offense can take a significant step forward, Georgia could be two or three wins better than they were last season.