Entering the fall, this was the game everyone circled on their schedule. Every time South Carolina and Georgia meets on the gridiron the stakes are always high. The winner usually goes on to have a good year while the loser struggles. When the twelfth-ranked Gamecocks and Bulldogs meet between the hedges at Sanford Stadium in Athens Saturday at 4:30, the stakes will be at an all-time high. Though it's only the first conference game of the season, this game will go a long way in determining who will represent the SEC East in Atlanta in December for the SEC Championship game.
"Obviously it's a big ball game this week," head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "Georgia Bulldogs and South Carolina. I guess in the preseason most of the experts picked either us or Georgia. I don't know if anyone picked some other teams, so it's a huge game. Hopefully our team will be ready to play better than we played last week. It wasn't really pretty the way we attempted to play. Hopefully we can make adjustments coaching and player-wise. Georgia feels the same way I'm sure (after playing Boise State)"
South Carolina will be trying to reach the SEC Championship game for the second consecutive year while Georgia will be looking to make its first appearance since a 34-14 beatdown of LSU in 2005 before falling to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl in a game that was played in the Georgia Dome due to Hurricane Katrina.
Carolina is coming off a typical opening game that was marred by mistakes and turnovers, but was able to overcome a 17-0 deficit to thump East Carolina 56-37. The Gamecocks overcame four first half turnovers to force four Pirate turnovers in the second half to run away with the game.
"Hopefully our team can play a lot smarter, take care of the ball and play well in the kicking game," Spurrier said. "We made some good plays. (The fumbles were) discouraging but fortunately in the second half we played better. We have a lot of work to do to get better. Georgia is a good team."
Georgia is coming off a 35-21 loss to Boise State in the Georgia Dome in their season opener. Down 28-7 at one point, the Dawgs struggled to get back into the game against a very good Broncos team.
"Boise, you have to admire the way their kids play," Spurrier said. "They played fundamentally sound, very few mistakes, hustle and give it their best shot. When they jog down the field, they look like Wofford or Furman or those teams. They play hard; their quarterback looked sharp throwing the ball."
Despite leading Georgia to all three of its SEC Championship game appearances - winning two - two SEC coach of the year awards, six 10+ win seasons in 10 years, and a 96-34 record head coach Mark Richt has come under fire. After dropping four of the first five games - including a 17-6 loss to South Carolina - Georgia rallied to win five of the last seven games to earn a bowl trip. The Dawgs lost to UCF in the Liberty Bowl to finish 6-7, the first losing season under Richt. The loss to Boise State warmed Richt's chair quite a bit and a loss to the Gamecocks could all but seal Richt's fate.
"Time's change as we all know in sports," Spurrier said. "Who would've thought Jim Tressel wouldn't be at Ohio State this year. Things change quickly some times. If you go in a slump and you're at a school that's used to winning, the fans get a little irritated. That's just the way it is. I came to a program that the coach before me had a losing record. Our expectations weren't quite like Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. As I said then, we had nowhere to go but up. We've gone gradually up. We're trying to get there. I know the media likes to write about a coach on the hot seat, but I assure you (Richt) is trying to figure out how to beat us."
Georgia switched to a 3-4 defense last season under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, and struggled mightily with the transition. A normally physical defense struggled against the run, giving up 147 yards per game on the ground. It was the most given up in the Mark Ricth era, 21 more yards than Georgia gave up in 2009.
It became evident very early that Georgia was going to struggle against the run in 2010. South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore ran roughshod over the Bulldog defense, carrying the ball 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns in just his second collegiate game. Georgia knows they better be ready to stop Lattimore or else Lattimore will have an even bigger day in 2011.
"Who knows how it will turn out," Spurrier said. "If he's running for six or seven yards a carry like last year, obviously he may get 35 (touches). They'll stack the box. I'm sure they watched tape of the run blocking schemes we used. You have to figure they'll try to get more guys in the box and defend against Marcus. Maybe we need to throw the ball better than we did last week, pass block better and run better routes. That may be the key for us to beat them. Who knows. Or maybe we can keep running it. Who knows."
If the Bulldogs load up the box to stop Lattimore, it will be up to quarterback Stephen Garcia to win the game. Garcia won the starting job back from Connor Shaw with his performance in the ECU game after seeing his starting streak of 28 games end. Though it was an entirely different game the last time the Gamecocks traveled to Athens, Garcia showed that he won't be rattled by the Georgia crowd and can have a big day. The redshirt sophomore threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns on 31-of-53 passing in a 41-37 loss to Georgia. It was a game that defied logic in a rivalry that has only seen a team top 20 points twice since 2001 excluding that game and Carolina had not scored more than 16 points over that same time span.
"The game two years ago, we had two touchdowns called back, allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and throwing it in the end zone, didn't quite hit it," Spurrier said. "But anyway, I don't know if it'll be a game like that or not. Who knows how it will be? They've got a different defensive coach now and maybe both teams are a little bit more run oriented. I'm not sure. So you just never know how the game will turn out."
Carolina already has already faced a 3-4 defense in ECU, but Georgia's is a little different than the one the Pirates ran.
"They (Georgia) move around a little differently," Spurrier said. "It's probably more of three guys with their hand on the ground and a stand up guy, a little bit like a 4-3 scheme, a little bit. They don't put a pure noseguard and two defensive ends so there's three guys with their hand on the ground, but there's not a noseguard right over the center very often. It looks like a 4-3 with one guy standing up."
Carolina will enter the game in a rare situation - three point favorites in a game played in Athens. The Gamecocks are rarely favorites when these two teams collide, even less when the game is played at Sanford Stadium.
"We don't look at who's favored or who it is," Spurrier said. "We just try to play the best we can. That's all we're trying to do is play the game better than we did last week. If we do that we'll have a chance. If we don't do that the chances won't be very good.
"We tell them the importance of the game," Spurrier continued. "I don't know if all our guys know Georgia is in our division. I hope they do. So we tell them that and the importance of that. Other than that it's just a game. If it goes bad, we'll keep playing the rest of the year. If it goes good, we'll still keep playing the rest of the year. All of our division games are important because a goal is to win the division."
Georgia kept most of its biggest in-state stars inside the program, signing most of the self-proclaimed "Dream Team." Tight end Jay Rome was considered the leader of the group, signing with Georgia and being joined with running back Isaiah Crowell, defensive end Ray Drew, and athlete Damian Swann. Georgia missed out on the other three members of the "Dream Team" - Malcom Mitchell (Louisville), Xavier Dickson (Alabama), and Quan Bray (Auburn). Still, the Bulldogs had to be happy with the four members they got.
"They got good athletes as always," Spurrier said. "They've been recruiting extremely well. I guess they're in the top 10 in the nation in recruiting every year in February I think. I read where they called this recruiting class their ‘Dream Team.' I guess all you guys knew that. So we're going up against a pretty good bunch of athletes and even though they've got some young guys playing, we got some young guys, too. They've got good athletes all over the place. Got to execute, have good plays on all of the time, take care of the ball, all that kind of stuff."
Flushing the last game
Spurrier knows his team is going to get everything Georgia has, particularly with the Dawgs playing at home and Richt firmly on the "hot seat." Even though Carolina picked up a win in it's opening game, it did not play particularly well. The Gamecocks had four first-half turnovers that lead to 17 of ECU's 24 points and struggled to move the ball until Garcia entered the game.
"I think we always get everybody's best shot to tell you the truth and the only thing on our minds is how lousy we played last week," Spurrier said. "It was a pretty sloppy game, defensively, offensively, two fumbles on special teams."
South Carolina also committed eight penalties for 55 yards, most of them coming at the worst possible times.
"We had two penalties on two big returns," Spurrier said. "Bruce ran it up to midfield and there was holding or push in the back on that and a punt return, we had a push in the back there. They called an illegal alignment when Joey punted the ball, his best one of the night. Then he had a high shanker on the next one and we lost 40 yards on that exchange. We played almost like, well, we did play like we could've lost the game...So anyway, we've got to play a lot better before we think we're hot stuff. That's what I'm trying to say. We're not very hot right now. We're an average bunch of guys out there right now."
Lattimore for Heisman
Marcus Lattimore made a strong opening case for winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy in the season opener. Lattimore ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns against the Pirates. With another good performance against Georgia, Lattimore can firmly place his name into the running. However, as Spurrier says, it's not about being the best player. It's about being the best player on one of the best teams.
"Well, whoever wins the Heisman now days is usually a player on a team that's in the top 5 in the nation and contending for the national championship," Spurrier said. "So if something were to happen and we got in that position in the 10th, 11th, 12th game, you would think he has a chance. If we're not, it'll be difficult to have a chance I'd think. We don't really talk about that, worry about that. It gives the media something to talk about."
Even though Lattimore drew a tremendous amount of attention in his coming-out party against the Bulldogs last season and had a great freshman campaign, he was never really going to be a serious contender for the Heisman that Cam Newton ended up running away with. However, Lattimore did receive at least one vote.
"I vote for whoever I want to," Spurrier said. "I usually vote for a guy on my team if I can. I voted for Sidney Rice, I voted for Kenny McKinley. Yeah, Marcus got one of my votes last year. He got one last year. That's the way most people vote don't they? They vote for who you want to?"
Look out for Boykin
John Butler and the special teams will have to keep an eye out on Georgia speedster Brandon Boykin. In the 41-37 loss in 2009, Boyking returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown and ended up with four returns for 187 yards in the game. Last week Boykin gave Georgia an early 7-0 lead with an 80-yard touchdown run.
"Yeah, we know he's out there," Spurrier said. "He ran a kickoff back two years ago and he ran an 80-yard run last week. We've got to try and contain him. If we kick it to him we've got to cover very well and so forth. Yeah, we know who he is and he's a big-play guy."
Still no official word on Byrd
Though it's been reported here that Damiere Byrd is expected to be cleared Tuesday or Wednesday by the NCAA, Spurrier wouldn't announce that he had been cleared by the time of the press conference.
"Don't know yet," Spurrier said. "We'll find out as the week progresses on Damiere."
Byrd missed Saturday's opener due to a compliance issue.
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