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Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart talks to Georgia offensive lineman Andrew Thomas (71) during a football game at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2018. The University of Georgia football team played against Austin Peay State University for their first game of the season.

The race for the SEC East crown will have a clear frontrunner after No. 3 Georgia’s road matchup on Saturday against South Carolina.

Just two years ago in 2016, both teams were lagging behind the field in the division, as the Bulldogs went 4-4 in SEC play while the Gamecocks went 3-5. The year was the first season for head coaches Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp, former co-workers, Georgia players and current longtime friends.

Now, after strong showings by both coaches in their second seasons at the helm of their respective programs, Georgia and South Carolina command the respect of one another as the teams gear up for a big-time matchup to open their SEC schedules.

"Obviously, I have a relationship with Muschamp,” Smart said. “They do a tremendous job over there. Watching them, I've been impressed with their program over the last couple of years.”

South Carolina gave Georgia one of its most competitive tests of the 2017 regular season, as the Gamecocks hung tough before falling to Georgia 24-10 on Nov. 4, 2017 in Athens. Muschamp’s team went on to finish in sole possession of second place in the SEC East with a 9-4 (5-3 SEC) record last season.

The Gamecocks picked up steam heading into the 2018 campaign after a 26-19 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1. In that contest, former Georgia player and wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon served as the interim offensive coordinator and called the plays for the Gamecocks.

After struggling in the first half, McClendon’s offense erased a 19-3 third-quarter deficit and scored 23 unanswered points to seal the Gamecocks’ first nine-win season since 2013.

"When I coached here, previously, under Mark Richt, Bryan was a player and did a tremendous job for us,” Smart, who coached Georgia’s running backs in 2005, said. “I've always had a lot of respect for him as a leader. Really good recruiter. He did a great job with the receivers when he was with those guys. Then he's calling [the plays for South Carolina]. He called in the bowl game. I thought, for a guy that started off slow in the bowl game, he was very patient, committed, called a great game. Especially in the second half. Kind of won that job by the job that he did."

McClendon parlayed the Outback Bowl win into earning the full-time offensive coordinator role after serving as the co-offensive coordinator in his first two seasons at South Carolina.

In McClendon’s first game as the full-time offensive coordinator this past Saturday, the Gamecocks put up 49 points and 557 total yards of offense against Coastal Carolina.

McClendon, who played receiver at Georgia from 2002-05, served as Georgia’s interim head coach in the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl following the firing of Mark Richt after the 2015 regular season. He coached the Bulldogs to a 24-17 win over Penn State before leaving to become South Carolina’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach.

While only a few of Georgia’s current players were on the 2015 team, McClendon’s impact still sticks with some.

"When he was our [interim] head coach, he encouraged us to relax and have fun and just do your job,” senior defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said. “[He told us to] be where your feet are, just kind of lock in and don't let the outside distractions get to you. And I guarantee that he's coaching those guys to do the exact same thing and that's what you would want in any coach."

In addition to past working relationships with Muschamp and McClendon, Smart has also worked with South Carolina assistant head coach and defensive line coach Lance Thompson. Thompson had multiple stints at Alabama, and the two worked a total of five seasons together with the Crimson Tide between 2007 and 2014.

All in all, Smart has a lot of ties to the South Carolina coaching staff, considering his history with the likes of Muschamp, McClendon and Thompson. Smart, himself, was reportedly pursued by South Carolina to be its head coach in 2015 before he was hired at Georgia.

Now, both programs are on the upswing and if history is any indicator, Smart expects a tough game from Muschamp’s upstart Gamecocks on Saturday.

“They've gotten better with each season,” Smart said. “We had the hard-fought battle two years ago on the Sunday game and then last year's game was probably one of the most physical we played in. It was a really tough, physical game."

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