COLUMBIA, S.C. – Lights. Camera. Action!
Today, we get to watch a classic Southern drama unfold. Georgia and South Carolina have accepted their roles in it, and they’re ready to play it out before a sold-out theater in Columbia. Both teams have played their parts to perfection to this point, each arriving with a top- 10 ranking and an unblemished record. One will leave in firm control of the SEC’s Eastern Division, at least for a week or so.
“This is why I came to Georgia, to play in games like this,” said Georgia senior cornerback Sanders Commings, who hails from the border town of Augusta. “To be in the top five in the country and to play other SEC teams in the top 10.”
Said South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, who’s from Flowery Branch: “Two top-10 teams, a lot riding on the game, an SEC East game, ‘College GameDay’ and I’m from Georgia. Yeah, it’s exciting.”
The Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 SEC) are ranked No. 5 and have a reputation as the SEC’s most explosive team on offense. They’ve averaged a league-best 48.2 points and 536 yards and have scored at least 41 points in every game.
But the No. 6 Gamecocks (5-0, 3-0) are the favored team because they field one of the nation’s better defenses, and they’re playing at home.
“We like these games,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said of the national stage. “It sort of lets the world know South Carolina football’s pretty good. We’re not quite where we want to be yet, but we’re up there amongst them, and hopefully we can keep pushing on.”
The Ol’ Ball Coach, 67, is in his eighth season at South Carolina. He’s still trying to lead the Gamecocks to their first SEC title, and he’s had them on the verge. They lost to Auburn in the 2010 SEC Championship game and were edged in the East by Georgia last season despite beating the Bulldogs (and their past 10 division opponents over the past two seasons).
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will try to avoid becoming the first Georgia team to lose three years in a row to South Carolina. They’ve played 64 times since 1894, and the Bulldogs lead 46-15-2.
“We don’t like to make history in a negative way,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We definitely don’t want to be on that end of the historical event.”
Traditionally a closely contested affair — eight of the past 11 have been decided by a touchdown or less — none of the games were more drama-filled than last season’s in Athens. The Gamecocks scored touchdowns on a fake punt, an interception return and a fumble return and set up another TD on a long fumble return to the Bulldogs’ 5-yard line en route to a 45-42 victory.
But any notion South Carolina simply was given the victory is dashed when the production of running back Marcus Lattimore is considered. Then a sophomore, Lattimore gained 94 of his 176 yards in the fourth quarter against the Bulldogs. Including his breakout performance as a freshman in 2010, Lattimore has rushed for 358 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia.
“Those past two games really don’t mean anything because I know they’re going to be ready,” said Lattimore, who is coming off a knee injury that sidelined in the seventh game last season. “[Georgia has] a great defense, as always. We’ve just got to continue to do what we’ve been doing and run our plays and execute.”
Slowing Lattimore is the Bulldogs’ clearly defined primary goal on defense. Their mission on offense is equally apparent.
The Gamecocks come in with the No. 2-ranked pass rush in the nation. They’ve collected 22 quarterback sacks, led by 6-foot-6 defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (5.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss) and 6-8 end Devin Taylor (1.5 sacks, 3.5 TFLs).
So protecting quarterback Aaron Murray and carving some running lanes against South Carolina’s stout front four will be paramount to the Bulldogs’ success.
“They do a great job of getting pressure with just four,” said Murray, who leads the SEC and ranks third nationally in pass efficiency. “They don’t need to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback and they create havoc in the run game.”
The Bulldogs will counter with an offensive line that features three new starters and a pair of freshman tailbacks. But they’ve managed to have record-breaking success on offense. Tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall average 192 yards rushing between them, and Murray has been sacked an average of .71 per game as Georgia has scored at least 41 points in all five games this season.
“This game will definitely be the best gauge,” Richt said of Georgia’s offense. “South Carolina’s defense is playing great.”
The Bulldogs will play without one of their primary offensive weapons. Split end Michael Bennett, who was leading the team in receiving yards (345), receptions (24) and touchdowns (four), went down with a season-ending knee injury in Tuesday’s practice. The good news for Georgia is that 11 other players have caught passes from Murray, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has made a full-time switch back to offense.
Bennett’s injury seems to have galvanized the Bulldogs’ will to win.
“As bad as everybody wants us to win, we want to win even more than that,” said senior flanker Tavarres King, who has asked to wear Bennett’s No. 82 jersey Saturday. “It’s extremely important to us. We work 365 days a year for 12 opportunities. So winning is huge, and this game is huge to us.”
So we’re hearing.
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