BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC
Georgia tailback Sony Michel runs against the South Carolina Gamecocks in 2016.

Georgia football: 5 South Carolina players to watch vs. UGA

Cy Brown

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5 Gamecocks to watch

As a 24 1/2-point road underdog with an 11 percent win probability according to S&P+, South Carolina has its work cut out for it Saturday against the Georgia Bulldogs. If the Gamecocks are going to have any chance of pulling off an upset, they’ll need strong showings from these five players.

Jake Bentley, QB — South Carolina has built its 6-2 record on defense and luck. The Gamecocks are 10th in the SEC in both total and scoring offense. What success has been found offensively has come from sophomore signal-caller Bentley. Bentley has passed for 1,749 yards with 13 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, and he’s third in the league in yards per game. Considering the Gamecocks aren’t much of a threat on the ground — they’re 12th in the SEC in rushing — chances are Bentley will need a season-best, perhaps even career-best, outing to break down the staunch Georgia defense.

Dante Sawyer, DL — The best way for South Carolina to close the gap on a more talented and productive Georgia team is to create turnovers, or at least the opportunity for them. Sawyer is the best on the Gamecocks roster at that. He’s tied for the national lead with 4 forced fumbles this season. If he, or any other Gamecocks defenders, can get the ball out of Georgia’s tailbacks’ hands and on the ground, Carolina might stand a chance.

Hayden Hurst, TE — Missouri showed the best way to beat this Georgia defense is with the deep ball. Easier said than done, obviously, but it’s still a possible avenue for the Gamecocks to exploit, and Hurst is the best vehicle to do it. He hauled in a 62-yard touchdown catch a few weeks ago against Arkansas and scored on a 39-yarder earlier in the season against Missouri. Receivers Shi Smith and Bryan Edwards are also potential deep threats.

D.J. Wonnum, DL — As a whole, South Carolina’s defensive line will be the most important unit in the game because it will be charged with bottling up Georgia’s destructive ground game. Wonnum is the most valuable asset the Gamecocks have when it comes to accomplishing that unenviable task. He leads the team with 8 1/2 tackles for loss. Getting some tackles in the backfield and keeping the Dawgs behind the sticks are musts if Carolina has any shot of limiting the damage from Georgia’s rushing attack.

Skai Moore, LB — Moore missed all of 2016 with a neck injury after leading Carolina in tackles the previous three seasons. All college football fans are happy to see him back after suffering such a serious injury, but Gamecocks fans must be thanking their lucky stars for his return. He’s the best player on the team and has the ability to single-handedly throw a wrench in Georgia’s plans with a few big plays. He leads the team with 2 interceptions and is second in tackles for loss (7). If someone is going to make the plays that give Carolina a chance to pull off a shocker, chances are it will be Moore.

Kirby Smart on Georgia’s No. 1 ranking

If you expected Kirby Smart to do anything but demur when asked about Georgia landing the No. 1 spot in the opening College Football Playoff rankings, I’ve got some beachfront property in Comer to sell you.

“Like we say all the time, it really means nothing right now,” Smart said, according to Seth Emerson of DawgNation. “It’s really nothing more than a distraction more than anything. And our kids realize that. They acknowledge that, and they understand that’s the way of the world, that’s the system we live in.

“It’s built to generate ratings and generate publicity for our sport. But our focus and attention is on South Carolina.”

Fresh legs

You have to love how Nick Chubb, the third-leading rusher in the SEC, is reacting to the lack of Heisman consideration he’s received.

“I don’t want it. They can keep it,” Chubb said, according to Emerson.

A big reason Chubb — or Sony Michel for that matter — isn’t in the Heisman race is a lack of carries. Unlike most star tailbacks in college football, Chubb has to share the ball with four other talented backs. While that may hurt some players’ chances of individual plaudits, it will only help the team. Georgia probably has one of the freshest backfields in the nation right now, which could give it a big edge down the stretch and lead to some more big games from Chubb and his fellow tailbacks.

“I feel great. I feel better now than I did at the beginning of the season,” Chubb said. “Just how I’ve been sharing the load, and not playing full games, that also helps. We’re doing a great job of taking care of everybody, I think.”

The Deep South’s most important rivalry

Go on, admit it. You’re already looking ahead to Auburn. It’s OK. Everyone is looking ahead to Georgia-Auburn.

Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated ranked the 10 most important games of November, and the showdown between the Dawgs and Tigers next week in Auburn claimed the No. 1 spot. This isn’t just a game that’s a big deal for Georgia fans anymore. With the Bulldogs holding down the top spot in the CFP rankings, the Deep South’s oldest rivalry now has national implications.

1. Georgia at Auburn, Nov. 11: The Bulldogs topped the initial rankings Tuesday night and are clearly the class of the SEC East. The question many of us have is can the SEC get two teams into the playoff? Georgia’s résumé is strong already with a win at Notre Dame and a four-touchdown demolition of 6–2 Mississippi State. Still, with Alabama lurking in the SEC title game, there isn’t much margin for error, and the trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium is the biggest hurdle on Georgia’s remaining regular season schedule. The Bulldogs have won five of the last six meetings in this series, holding the Tigers under 14 points in all five victories.

All about turnovers

As mentioned, turnovers are pretty much the only way I can see South Carolina staying in this game. I was going to write more on this topic, but as he often does, Senator Blutarksy of Get The Picture did a fine job of summing it up.

South Carolina is +8 in turnover margin.  That’s second-best in the conference.  (In conference games only, the ‘Cocks are first in that category.)  Further, Jake Bentley hasn’t thrown an interception in his past four games, a streak up to 136 pass attempts.

The Dawgs have been a little fortunate this season in that they’ve comfortably survived the two games in which they generated negative turnover margins.  Bill Connelly’s analysis shows them minus-1.09 points per game in turnover luck, which seems a little surprising for an 8-0 team.  (Alabama’s, for instance, is +2.31 ppg.  South Carolina’s, by the way, is almost as good at +1.99 ppg.)

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