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Georgia Football 2018 Opponent Preview: South Carolina Gamecocks
I have spoken with an awful lot of Georgia fans this offseason who are worried about the week two trip to Columbia to face South Carolina. It’s understandable. With the Dawgs opening the season against overmatched and outgunned Austin Peay, the Sept. 8 game against the Gamecocks is the first big game of the years, so it’s at the front of a lot of minds as the season looms.
An away game against an SEC East foe in the second weak of the season — which typically means South Carolina — is always something to fret over in the long days of the offseason. And by all accounts, Will Muschamp has made tremendous strides with the Gamecocks in his first two seasons. (Not as much as Kirby Smart, but I digress.) By my and most pundits figuring, South Carolina is the greatest threat to Georgia in the East. But are Georgia fans right to be as worried about this game as they are?
Talk to anyone who knows anything and they’ll tell you the Gamecocks will be one of the most dangerous opponents on Georgia’s 2018 schedule. I don’t necessarily think that’s incorrect, I just think “most dangerous” has to be quantified relative to how dangerous other opponents are. And on a weak Georgia schedule, there isn’t a whole lot of danger. I think a lot of fans have overinflated the danger South Carolina poses because, frankly, there aren’t a ton of other opponents to worry about.
One thing you can always count on from Muschamp is turnover at offensive coordinator. Bryan McClendon will head the South Carolina offense this year, making him Muschamp’s fourth offensive coordinator in seven years as a head coach. And the change was warranted. South Carolina’s stodgy attack finished 12th in the SEC in scoring and 88th nationally in offensive S&P+.
McClendon planning on going up-tempo to bring the excitement back to the offense, and he’s got a few weapons to do it with. I’m not totally sold on junior QB Jake Bentley — who passed for 2,1794 yards, 18 TDs and 12 INTs last season — but he has the potential to break down any defense on days he’s clicking. Aiding Bentley in his attempt to turn a corner is returning WR Deebo Samuel, who had 474 all-purpose yards and 6 TDs in 11 quarters before missing the final 10 games with a broken leg. Samuel’s return alone should make the offense significantly more dangerous.
Muschamp’s calling card has always been and will always be defense, but South Carolina still has a lot to improve upon on that side of the ball. The Gamecocks returns six starters and a gaggle of strong role players from a defense that was generally average on a play-to-play basis but excelled at taking the ball away, recovering 14 fumbles and snagging 14 interceptions as a team. Their greatest weakness was the pass rush. The Gamecocks finished 11th in the league with 26.0 sacks to their name last season. To be an elite SEC defense, you simply have to get to the quarterback more often.
The player to watch for the Gamecock defense is DT Javon Kinlaw. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound JuCo transfer finished last season with 20 tackles working in backup duty for South Carolina, and he appears poised for a breakout campaign. He has the kind of size Muschamp needs in the middle of his defense to draw attention from offensive linemen and open lanes for other rushers. Kinlaw could single-handedly create more opportunities for this defense if he lives up to his hype.
What to expect on Sept. 8
I made it a point to say Georgia fans shouldn’t be as worried about South Carolina as many I’ve spoken with are, but that’s not to say don’t worry about the Gamecocks at all. It’s an early season game and Georgia will be working out some kinks and breaking in a lot of new names in front of a hostile crowd at Williams-Brice. But there’s a really good reason the Dawgs are favored over South Carolina by two touchdowns: They’re better.
FPI Projection: Georgia has a 79.1 percent chance of winning
Opponent Previews: Austin Peay