I recently was contacted by SB Nation’s South Carolina Gamecocks blogger, Gamecock Man, about exchanging interview questions on the eve of Saturday’s SEC East showdown between the hedges. Gamecock Man (who does not wear a cape, by the way) posted my answers to his questions last night and now it is time for me to return the favor. Here is our conversation:
Dawg Sports: Steve Spurrier's reputation as an offensive mastermind has been tarnished since his departure from Gainesville and Stephen Garcia seems, by turns, to be the savior and the goat. What does South Carolina have to do to get its offense untracked and will this be the game in which Garcia lives up to his potential?
Garnet and Black Attack: Spurrier is still capable of calling a good ball game from a play-calling point of view. His offense still works and he still knows how to read defenses and draw up a play that gets his receiver open. In that sense, the issue isn't the oft-mentioned idea that "the game has passed him by." However, player development seems to have been a problem for the quarterbacks and the offensive line, which reflects both on Spurrier and the assistants he's hired / refused to fire soon enough. Former offensive line coach John Hunt is a primary culprit. We're now working with a new group of coaches, most of whom are highly regarded. Despite the overall poor offensive performance, we did see improved line play against N. C. State, so perhaps these were good hires. The jury is obviously still out, though.
As for Garcia, I think a lot of his poor play last year came due to the fact that he was asked to be the guy too soon. Garcia was basically a true freshman last year, with little knowledge of the play book. He played well at points, usually because he was able to create plays with his athletic ability. However, good defenses quickly figured out how to handle him, and he didn't have many answers due to inexperience. This year, he's probably going to be a lot smarter; I doubt we'll see any more performances like we did against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. However, he was still far from good against N. C. State, so he has a ways to go. For that reason, I doubt Georgia will exactly be a breakout game for him. Although Spurrier has vowed to be less conservative this week, I still doubt you'll see him ask Garcia to do too much. Spurrier has to know that his best chance to win this game is to see if his defense can win the field position battle and / or create points off turnovers, which means he'll try to limit Garcia's chances to make big mistakes. Therefore, unless Garcia either comes out really hot or we get behind early and Garcia has to play hero, you'll probably see more of what you saw last week: we'll try to establish the running game, work the short passing game, and only go vertical a few times. If Garcia can do those things without any big mistakes, then he probably won't be asked to have the breakthrough game.
DS: Even during the years in which South Carolina was losing ten or more games per year, the Gamecocks always played stout defense. This generally has been the case for a decade or more, even as coordinators and head coaches have changed. What is the secret to USC's consistent defensive prowess and how will it be displayed between the hedges this weekend?
G&BA: It's hard to say when you think about it like that. A lot of it has probably been coincidental. We've been lucky enough to have some of the better defensive coordinators in southern football on the sidelines for quite a while. Think back to the Holtz tenure. We had Charlie Strong, a great DC by any measure. We had Tyrone Nix for a while under Spurrier; Nix took a lot of criticism for the Gamecocks defensive failures during the five game slide in 2007, but that defense was completely ravaged by injuries by the end of the year. Georgia fans will remember that Nix was pretty good that year when he had the right tools in place. Now we have Ellis Johnson, who, like Strong, is almost universally praised for his defensive coaching prowess. This guy had good defenses at Mississippi State, for goodness's sake. You know he didn't have the talent there. So we've been really lucky to get good coaching talent.
DS: Although Georgia and South Carolina have been playing regularly since the 1890s, the Bulldogs regard their rivalries with Auburn, Florida, and Georgia Tech as the most important games on the schedule, while the Gamecock faithful appear to regard Georgia as the team's second-biggest rival, behind only Clemson. Is this perception accurate, and, if so, why is the rivalry with Georgia such a big deal to South Carolina?
G&BA: That's not just Georgia fans' perception. Some may have particular antipathies for Tennessee, Florida, or even Arkansas, but the vast, vast majority of Carolina fans mark the Georgia game down as the second-biggest on the schedule. I know this surprises some Georgia fans, who--reasonably, I should add--see other rivals as more important than Carolina. However, you've gotta look at this from the Carolina point of view. Most of our historic rivals come from the ACC. We've still played more games all-time against teams like UNC and N. C. State than we have against most of our SEC East brethren. So, when we joined the SEC, we needed a rivals pecking order, just like anyone else. Georgia took the honor because we've been playing you guys for many years. That's the main reason we see Georgia as a big rival.
Second of all, and don't take this the wrong way, but the Georgia series has just been closer than the series with the other SEC East teams. Until recently, we usually lost to Tennessee, and we still usually lose to Florida. A lot of those games haven't even been close, especially in the Gators' case. On the flip side, we usually beat Vandy and Kentucky, although the two recent losses to Vandy have given that series a lot more urgency. On the other hand, the Georgia series has been relatively close in recent years. Mark Richt has had more sustained success against the Gamecocks than Ray Goff and Jim Donnan, but the games have still been brutally close, for the most part. Even a Georgia fan has to admit that, even if we're not Auburn to you, the fact that these games are usually so close lends some emotional resonance to the series.
DS: Let's play "starter swap." If you could trade one Gamecock first-teamer to Georgia in exchange for his Bulldog varsity counterpart, which two players would you have switch teams and why?
G&BA: Expecting me to go with A. J. Green, right? Wrong. While I'd love to have Green, I don't really think WR is a position of need for us. Once the line starts blocking and Garcia starts making the right throws, I think our WRs will make the catches, although, certainly, none of them measure up to Green.
This may surprise you, but I'd probably go with Rennie Curran. I'm a little worried that, now that Rodney Paulk is out with injury, depth at linebacker may become an issue for us. Plus, Curran would fit into our defensive scheme well. In our two linebacker looks, Eric Norwood is the guy that you'll see rush the passer a lot, whereas the other linebacker is there to keep an eye on the run. Curran would be great in that role, one of the best in the country, actually. The fact that he helped the 'Dawgs hold us to 18 yards last year attests to his prowess.
My thanks go out to Gamecock Man for suggesting and participating in this exchange of interview questions. I wish his team the best of luck tomorrow night, with the caveat that what I mean by "best of luck" is "a good game that South Carolina ultimately loses, preferably without a phantom holding penalty like some other victories by Peach State teams over Palmetto State teams I could name.