ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt was in an introspective mood in the moments after Georgia's 20-12 win against Tennessee on Saturday.
Having just won his milestone 100th game as the Bulldogs' coach, Richt reflected on the first time one of his Georgia teams earned a conference title.
"The first SEC championship ring we got from 2002, I'm not big into rings and all that kind of thing, but the symbol of what it represented is as gratifying as anything I've been associated with as a coach, and especially as a head coach," Richt said. "It's just hard to win in this league, and I'm glad we're in the race."
Don't look now, but that's exactly where they are.
Riding a four-game winning streak, Georgia (4-2, 3-1 SEC) is tied with South Carolina (5-1, 3-1) for first place in the Eastern Division. It's the first time in three years that, at the season's midpoint, Georgia is looking at a realistic chance of winning the East.
The defending SEC East champion Gamecocks' 45-42 head-to-head win in Athens gives them a tiebreaker advantage over Georgia. But with Georgia suddenly dominating on defense while South Carolina is experiencing uncertainty at quarterback, Georgia has become a popular choice to win the division because of its manageable remaining schedule.
"We have to get ready for Vanderbilt next week, another SEC game," Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. "We're feeling that we have some momentum going right now, and we have to keep working hard and keep practicing and staying focused on our ultimate goal."
The path toward that goal might be easier for Georgia than any other team in the East.
The Bulldogs have already played two of their three conference road games -- wins at Ole Miss and Tennessee -- with only this weekend's visit to Vanderbilt remaining. Otherwise, Georgia has its always daunting matchup against Florida in Jacksonville and home games against Kentucky and Auburn left on the slate.
"It's a big deal. We're excited about that," Richt said of remaining in the division race. "I guess we're tied for first with South Carolina. We're losing a tiebreaker. We've just got to keep winning and hope somebody can help us. We're in the race, and that's exciting for us. It's exciting for the fans, it's exciting for me personally."
Despite the presence of star running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina's offense sputtered for much of the first half of the season. Coach Steve Spurrier benched slumping quarterback Stephen Garcia on Saturday against Kentucky in favor of Connor Shaw, and the change yielded eye-popping results.
The Gamecocks totaled 639 yards of offense -- the most by a Spurrier-coached South Carolina team and the most for the program in 10 years -- in a 54-3 win against the Wildcats. Shaw passed for 311 yards and four touchdowns, giving Spurrier hope that his offense is finally on the right track.
"At the beginning of the season, everyone probably has higher expectations. Then you start playing the games and you start figuring out where we all are," Spurrier said during his Sunday teleconference. "Our team really had not played I don't think up to our potential until yesterday, when we pretty much had some offense to go with the defense. But hopefully we're starting to put it together now. That's what you've got to hope as the season progresses."
The next month will provide Spurrier's answer as the Gamecocks have games at Mississippi State, at Tennessee and at Arkansas, followed by a home date against Florida (4-2, 2-2) on Nov. 12.
Meanwhile, Florida's division hopes are floundering after back-to-back blowout losses to Alabama and LSU -- with a visit to Auburn ahead next weekend -- but the Gators can still scratch their way back into the East race. Games against Georgia and South Carolina remain on the schedule, along with a Nov. 5 homecoming date with Vanderbilt.
Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) lost to Florida and Georgia and faces games against LSU, Alabama and South Carolina in the next three weekends.
The first half of the season established the East as a three-horse race and, for the first time in several years, Georgia remains as one of the contenders.
It's a refreshing change for a Bulldogs team coming off an enormously disappointing 2010 season that created further dissension within Georgia's fan base. Rather than splinter, however, Richt said he saw no signs of a split after the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina in September and fell to 0-2.
"I remember in that locker room after that game," Richt said. "It's easy to go blast everybody if you want to and start pointing fingers and all that kind of thing. But we didn't do that and I didn't do that personally. All I said was, 'Men, I just see the ingredients of a team that could be special. But we've got to find a way to put it together. We've got to find a way to just not give the thing away.'
"If we can continue to improve and get to a point to where we're not making it easy on the opponents, giving them some gifts, I think we'll be a hard team to beat."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.