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Georgia Bulldogs 2011 Season Preview: The South Carolina Game

College football season will be upon us before we know it, so it is time to begin looking at the Georgia Bulldogs’ 2011 opponents. Of course, the Maple Street Press annual offers 128 pages’ worth of insights, but, in an effort to bring you up to speed using every means at my disposal, I am working my way through the schedule here at the weblog, as well.

Having already previewed the Boise State game (in which, incidentally, I am told the ‘Dawgs have no chance), I now focus on the autumn’s first home game (and the first to feature regular uniforms), against the defending Eastern Division champion South Carolina Gamecocks on September 10.

Yes, that felt weird to type, but we are in virtually uncharted territory here. I use the adverb "virtually" because there is some precedent, however slight, and it is at least somewhat favorable for the Bulldogs. The Gamecocks’ only previous championship of any sort was an ACC title captured in 1969; the 1970 South Carolina squad traveled to Athens and lost a 52-34 contest to the Red and Black on Halloween. Likewise, the last time Georgia welcomed the Gamecocks between the hedges with a head coach facing a make-or-break season, Ray Goff was in his final year at the helm of his alma mater’s football program. On that September day in 1995, there were banners unfurled declaring: "If you can’t beat the poultry, go back to Moultrie!" (Hopefully, Mark Richt’s detractors will not attempt to rhyme anything with "Tallahassee," as the result is apt to involve both vulgarity and improper usage.) Georgia won that day, 42-23.

Given the admittedly meager historical record under circumstances such as these, might we expect another high-scoring barn-burner? That seems unlikely, but, then, we didn’t foresee a shoot-out the last time these teams hooked up in Sanford Stadium, either, so it shouldn’t shock us if we see another departure from the defensive struggles we have come to expect in this series.

Certainly, the Gamecocks have the pieces in place to provide an impressive offensive showing. The South Carolina O figures to be even more manly, seeing as how it returns every important weapon except Tori Gurley. (Sorry; couldn’t resist.) Gurley left early for the NFL (well, sort of), but Stephen Garcia, Alshon Jeffery, and Marcus Lattimore all return, which creates a number of challenges for the Red and Black. The Georgia front seven offers hope of improvement, but these first two games will be the D’s chance to prove it. Preventing Lattimore from running wild again will be critical if the Bulldogs are to shut up Steve Spurrier and shut down the South Carolina passing game; if the Gamecocks can run up the middle at will the way they did last year, the Athenians have no possibility of winning this game . . . seriously, none.

Even if the Red and Black defense can hold the Garnet and Black offense at least somewhat in check, though, Georgia still will have to keep up when the ‘Dawgs have the ball. The ‘Cocks have proven weapons at running back and wide receiver, but the Athenians, frankly, don’t. Although I am a fan of the kid, Tavarres King has yet to be in a game what Aaron Murray says he is in practice: Georgia’s go-to guy. At tailback, circumstances are even worse. In Columbia last autumn, the Bulldogs’ leading rusher, Washaun Ealey, gained 75 yards on 19 carries. He is no longer with the team. The Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, Carlton Thomas, gained one yard on one carry. He is currently on suspension (though possibly only for the season opener). The Bulldogs’ third-leading rusher, Aaron Murray, lost 15 yards on six carries. The Bulldogs had no fourth-leading rusher.

I suppose that means that Isaiah Crowell’s and Ken Malcome’s inexperience should not count against them. After all, even though both have career stat lines in Athens of zero carries for zero yards, a non-negative rushing total against South Carolina could represent an improvement over what we have returning in the ground game, and, even if Thomas is back by the season’s second Saturday, his lead over his coevals in the offensive backfield will be three meager feet.

To his credit, Murray completed 14 of 21 passes for 192 yards and no interceptions in his first SEC start in Columbia last fall, despite a game plan that kept the then-freshman in bubble wrap and on training wheels, so Georgia’s returning quarterback is an unqualified plus (unlike Garcia, whose positives are, well, not altogether unqualified), but he will need to have help, which means the Red and Black will need huge days from the offensive line and the running backs and the receiving corps. There’s just no sugar-coating the fact that an awful lot has to come together for Georgia to have much hope of hanging with the new and improved Gamecocks, as the Bulldogs have question marks where South Carolina has exclamation points.

Though Georgia faces probably the country’s toughest one-two punch to open the season, the Bulldogs did catch one break on the schedule. No, not on the Athenians’ schedule . . . on South Carolina’s. The Red and Black will start the year with an 8:00 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, September 3, while the Garnet and Black will start the year with . . . a 7:00 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, September 3. This represents a dramatic departure from the recent trend, as the Gamecocks have enjoyed the advantage of opening five of the six seasons from 2005 to 2010 with a Thursday night ESPN game, giving the Palmetto State Poultry an extra two days to prepare for the Classic City Canines. It is open to debate how much of an advantage this has given them---in 2007, South Carolina opened the season on a Saturday before beating the Bulldogs seven days later---but, in a series this tight, every little bit makes a difference, so I’m glad to see them getting the same amount of prep time as the Bulldogs for a change.

In conjunction with that, Georgia also will enjoy whatever benefit home field advantage confers. Though the Red and Black have posted comparable records on both sides of the state line, going 20-7 against the Gamecocks in Sanford Stadium and 19-8-2 all-time against South Carolina in Columbia, Georgia generally has scored more in this series when playing in the Classic City. Since the first two games in the Palmetto State between these teams as SEC division foes in 1992 and 1994, the Bulldogs have scored 14, 17, 10, 13, 20, 18, 14, and 6 points, respectively, on their last eight visits to Williams-Brice Stadium. By contrast, Georgia has exceeded 30 points against the Gamecocks in four of the last eight series meetings between the hedges. Once again, this is no guarantee, but I’ll take any advantage we can get.

Many who believe the Palmetto State Poultry will prove to be a flash in the pan would agree with what Steve Spurrier said at SEC Media Days; namely, that South Carolina’s Eastern Division title was to a substantial extent attributable to the fact that Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee all happened to be down simultaneously. Such arguments as that usually are mistaken, and they particularly are in this case. The Gamecocks, after all, did not back into an SEC Championship Game berth or earn a critical win by fluke; they took care of business on the field, impressively beating a solid Alabama squad, notching a two-touchdown victory over Tennessee, and trouncing the Gators in the Swamp. Add to that the fact that, just as Georgia’s 2009 win over South Carolina in Athens was nowhere near as close as the final score suggested, so too was the Gamecocks’ eleven-point triumph over the ‘Dawgs in Columbia last autumn more convincing on the field than the margin on the scoreboard indicated. The Garnet and Black didn’t simply prey upon rebuilding powers; South Carolina lined up, straight up, and beat them. There is no dismissing the Gamecocks’ 2010 run as a function of other teams’ failings, and there must be no underestimating the defending division champions’ status as the most complete team in the East heading into the 2011 campaign.

Accordingly, at this point, there is absolutely no reason we should not consider South Carolina the division frontrunner. Consequently, there is absolutely no reason we should not consider this the toughest, most important game of the 2011 season. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason we should not consider this as critical a game for dictating the future of the program as the Bulldogs have played in at least the last half-decade, and maybe longer. Lose this one, and the season probably is lost and an era likely is over; win this one, and no goal is out of reach.

Go ‘Dawgs!