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Kirby Smart is entering his fourth season as Georgia's head coach.

These three opponents will be the biggest challengers for Georgia football over the next 10 seasons

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Clemson, Florida to be the biggest challengers to Georgia football in the years to come

Georgia has a lot of rivals. Depending on the fan, you could consider the likes of Florida, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and South Carolina as “rivals.” There’s also whatever you want to call what’s going on between Georgia in Alabama, as the two sides have met in huge postseason games in each of the last two seasons.

All of those programs are at different stages. Alabama and Auburn seem like their current runs under Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn are winding down. Meanwhile Tennessee and Georgia Tech will be led in new directions by Jeremy Pruitt and Geoff Collins.

But which of Georgia’s rivals, to whatever degree, will define the next decade of Georgia football? For the past 10 years, you would probably say Alabama, Florida and Auburn, in that order. But for the next 10 years, it’s a different combination:

3. Alabama

At some point, Georgia is going to beat Alabama. The Bulldogs have clearly closed the gap on the Crimson Tide. At this point, it’s more of a mental hurdle that Georgia has to get over than a talent difference. Georgia coach Kirby Smart basically said as much when he spoke with Tony Barnhart of TMG Sports. 

“We played well for the most part against Alabama but we didn’t finish the game….for whatever reason,” Smart said. “They made some plays and we didn’t have the hob-nail boot mentality (that said) ‘We’ve got them on the ropes, let’s knock them out.’ We didn’t do it.”

Part of the reason we have Alabama at No. 3 is because at some point Nick Saban is going to retire. It could come after next season, it could be another four to five years. But at some point in the next decade, Alabama is going to make a coaching change. And it’s very plausible the Crimson Tide take a step back with that coaching change.

Another reason we have Alabama at No. 3 is because Georgia is only guaranteed to play Alabama once over the next decade. That game comes in 2020, when the Bulldogs visit Tuscaloosa for the first time since 2007. The Bulldogs have played Alabama in each of the past two seasons, and the two sides will likely be favorites to once again to meet in Atlanta in at the end of the 2019 season.

2. Clemson

Georgia and Clemson have met 64 times in their history. That’s more than Georgia has played Tennessee and only seven fewer times than South Carolina. Given that Georgia also has to play Georgia Tech every season, it’s hard to put Clemson on the schedule annually.

But that hasn’t stopped Clemson and Georgia for playing a couple of times every few years. These two teams last met during the 2013 and 14 seasons. They’ll see each other again in 2024 in Atlanta before a home-and-home beginning in 2029. That’s assuming the two teams don’t meet in the College Football Playoff before then.

Clemson has also had a ton of success recruiting the state of Georgia. The Deshaun Watson saga is well chronicled by now. But even since Kirby Smart has taken over, Clemson has gotten some significant wins in recruiting in Georgia. Clemson has landed a top-7 player from the state of Georgia in each of the past six recruiting classes. For comparison, Alabama has landed zero top-7 recruits from the state of Georgia in that same time span.

Related: UGA fans should expect an intense recruiting battle for 5-star DE Bryan Bresee

And the Tigers and Bulldogs are going to go head-to-head a lot in 2020. Recruiting battles to watch for 2020 include 5-star defensive tackle Bryan Bresee — the nation’s No. 1 player — and 5-star defensive end Myles Murphy — the No. 2 player in the state of Georgia. Given Dabo Swinney and Smart are both still relatively young, there’s a pretty good chance these two have some epic battles on the field and on the recruiting trail in the years to come.

1. Florida

Some, like DawgNation Daily host Brandon Adams, would point that Florida is the most important game for Georgia in every season. The Florida game is always a big game for just about every Georgia fan.

But what separates Florida from Alabama, Clemson and even Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech is the rivalry between Smart and Florida coach Dan Mullen. It’s pretty clear these two coaches do not like each other. As we outlined earlier this week, these Smart and Mullen are pretty much polar opposites.

Related: Georgia football-Florida rivalry becoming the most heated in college football

I feel safe saying that Florida is at least going to be good over the next decade. In his time at Mississippi State, Mullen elevated the program to a point where it was pretty consistently good year-in and year-out. But Mississippi State was rarely great under Mullen, and I believe a similar script will play out in his time at Florida. Despite Miami and Florida State being down last year, Mullen only signed the SEC’s fifth best recruiting class. The Gators landing Kaiir Elam, a 4-star cornerback in 2019 class, was Mullen’s first big recruiting win over Georgia in his time at Florida.

Mullen isn’t an elite recruiter, and for all his deserved praise as an offensive mind, his teams have only scored more than 17 points against a Smart led defense twice since 2008, dating back to Mullen’s time at Mississippi State and Smart’s at Alabama.

Georgia wants to get to the College Football Playoff every year.  The easiest way achieve that there is by winning the SEC. To do that, the Bulldogs have to win the SEC East. And to make sure that happens, Smart and Georgia have to continue to get the better of Mullen and Florida.

Between the boiling Smart-Mullen rivalry and Georgia-Florida being a major battle in the SEC East race, it’s safe to say Florida is going to continue to be Georgia’s biggest rival in the years to come.

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