US Presswire - Georgia head coach Mark Richt

Despite the slew of off-the-field distractions that have marred the program’s progress this spring, Georgia coach Mark Richt should be excited for the 2012 football season.

After all, considering South Carolina’s challenging schedule, Georgia could win the East regardless of what happens in Columbia, S.C. on Oct. 6.

Sound familiar?

Last season, the Gamecocks beat the Bulldogs in a shootout in Athens but ultimately didn’t make it to Atlanta due to losses to West foes Auburn and Arkansas. Despite going 5-0 against Eastern Division opponents and being ranked ahead of Georgia in the BCS, ninth-ranked South Carolina stayed home on SEC Championship weekend while the Bulldogs fell victim to the Honey Badger’s second-half explosion during a 42-10 loss to LSU.

USC head coach Steve Spurrier has voiced his frustration numerous times this offseason, going as far as saying games against the West shouldn’t count toward the conference title game. Richt would deflect that notion this season considering UGA’s — by SEC standards — creampuff schedule. From the West, the Bulldogs get Ole Miss and Auburn while the Gamecocks battle LSU and Arkansas.

Should Georgia overcome road contests at Auburn and South Carolina, Richt’s boys could be in the hunt for a national championship with the league’s easiest slate.

By no means is this aimed at downplaying the Bulldogs’ talent, because they have plenty of All-SEC-worthy playmakers. Quarterback Aaron Murray is the SEC’s top-returning signal caller with 6,198 career yards and 59 touchdowns while two All-Americans — Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo — anchor a stingy defense that should be the East’s best overall.

Georgia returns 15 starters off a 10-win squad and is the sexy preseason selection to repeat as East champions.

Richt signed a six-year extension in the offseason following a job-saving 10-game winning streak that stretched from Sept. 17 to Nov. 26. After UGA started 0-2, Richt was on thin ice. Now, he’s back in the good graces of the fanbase — and more importantly — UGA athletic director Greg McGarity.

But three arrests since the bowl game could have UGA headed in a different direction.

Early draft entree Orson Charles was hand-cuffed the first week of March on a drunk driving arrest while starting corner Branden Smith was flagged on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in Abbeville, Ala. In January, cornerback Sanders Commings was arrested on a domestic violence charge in Athens and promptly suspended the first two games of this season (Buffalo, at Missouri) by Richt.

The good news for the Bulldogs is reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell seems to have his act together this spring according to Richt. He was suspended one game for failing a drug test last season but still managed a team-leading 850 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Along with five-star freshman stud Keith Marshall, the pair makes quite a tandem in a talented backfield.

Barring injury, UGA should reach double-digit wins for the eighth time in Richt’s tenure. During that same span, UGA has five East titles and a pair of SEC Championship Game victories. At Georgia, Richt is 106-38 in 11 seasons.