ATHENS – Georgia will play its first game in nine years as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team (and its first as the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings) Saturday when the South Carolina Gamecocks visit Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs can only hope their reign as such lasts a little longer this time.
They didn’t lose right away the last time they were No. 1. Based mainly on the way it finished the 2007 season – with a No. 2 ranking and blowing out opponents – Georgia opened the 2008 campaign ranked No. 1 in both The Associated Press and USA Today preseason polls. The Bulldogs won under the AP’s No. 1 banner on Aug. 30, 2008 (the coaches had already dropped them to No. 2), defeating Georgia Southern 45-21. But the pollsters weren’t impressed and UGA fell to No. 2 behind Southern Cal by the time it played Central Michigan Week 2.
Oddly enough, Georgia continued to backtrack in the polls even though it continued to win through the first four weeks. After an impressive 27-10 road win over Arizona State, the Bulldogs validated the doubts when a Alabama, under second-year head coach Nick Saban, came to Athens and laid a 41-30 whipping on them. It was worse than the final score indicated, with the Crimson Tide leading 31-0. UGA finished the year 10-3 after a win over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.
What’s that have to do with Saturday’s game between the Bulldogs (8-0, 5-0 SEC) and the Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2)?
That is certainly the tact that coach Kirby Smart and the players are taking. First of all, it’s a decidedly different college football world we’re living in these days. A panel of 13 football experts voted UGA the No. 1 team for the initial College Football Playoff rankings, released on Tuesday. But all that means is the Bulldogs are the nation’s best team at this moment in time based on all the criteria the selection committee gives itself to reach those conclusions weekly.
“It’s a distraction more than anything else, to be honest with you,” Smart said the Bulldogs’ new status.
Georgia was given the slightest edge over Alabama – which actually is No. 1 in both the traditional polls – based on a stronger overall schedule and the best win in the country to this point. The Bulldogs beat Notre Dame 20-19 on Sept. 9 in South Bend and the Fighting Irish haven’t lost since, notching some impressive wins of their own. That’s why they opened at No. 3 in the CFP rankings.
Probably the only thing all that means for Saturday’s game against the Gamecocks is that the visitors will be even more motivated to pull off the upset. It seems like there have been even more major upsets than usual in college football so far this year. There are only five unbeaten teams through nine weeks of the season. In addition to Georgia and Alabama, there are Miami (10), Wisconsin (9) and UCF (18), each of which was ranked considerably lower in the poll.
There are seven matchups of CFP Top 25 teams this weekend alone. So everybody is going to be on upset watch this weekend. The Bulldogs will be, too.
“Humility is just a week away,” senior Lorenzo Carter said, parroting his coach.
South Carolina has beaten the nation’s No. 1 team before, and not so long ago. The Gamecocks beat No. 1 Alabama 35-21 in 2010.
Twenty-four point favorites, the Bulldogs should be OK. Here’s how it breaks down:
To pass or not to pass
Once again, an opposing defensive back has challenged the Bulldogs to throw the ball. South Carolina safety Chris Lammons flat out stated, “they can’t pass.”
But there’s a difference in “can’t pass” and “don’t need to pass.” And Georgia simply hasn’t needed to or chooses not to, in most cases. Thanks to a salty defense and one of the best running back corps in America, the Bulldogs have gotten all the offense they’ve needed by keeping the ball on the ground.
Georgia is second in the SEC in rushing yards with 284 per game. The Bulldogs are best known for senior tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but they actually utilize five backs most every game, including dynamic freshman D’Andre Swift.
So the Bulldogs always are going to see to run the ball first. They’ve been forced to pass only twice this season. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm had 326 yards and two touchdowns in a 53-28 win against Missouri and completed 55 percent of his passes for 141 yards with a TD and an interception in the win at Notre Dame.
South Carolina appears to be a run-stopping defense. It is fifth in the conference while giving up 137.6 per game. But Florida, which was then ranked third in the SEC, thought it was, too. Georgia ran for 292 in the 42-7 win over the Gators.
Last week, Florida’s Chauncey Gardner dissed Fromm’s ability to throw the ball by saying, “I get it, he throws a lot of slants.” Fromm attempted only seven passes against the Gators. As it turned out, one of them was somewhat of a slant to running back D’Andre Swift from the slot position. Swift caught it and proceeded to truck Gardner, who came up from his safety position to make the tackle. Gardner had to be helped off the field.
The Bentley Factor
South Carolina sophomore Jake Bentley is generally considered to be among the top half of the SEC’s quarterbacks, and some might say top third. He certainly appeared that way the last half of last season after he won the starting job, and into this one. He enters this game third in the SEC in passing with 219.8 yards per game.
But Bentley and the Gamecocks’ offense were hurt by the loss of Deebo Samuels to injury early in the season. The wide receiver is South Carolina’s most dynamic play-maker, on special teams as well as offense. He broke his leg against Kentucky in the season’s third game, yet remains the team’s leading scorer.
Since then, Bentley has struggle to find a reliable receiver. Hayden Hurst is an NFL-caliber tight end and a matchup problem for most defenses. He’s the Gamecocks’ second-leading receiver (328, 2 TDs) behind wideout Bryan Edwards (435, 1).
In the meantime, South Carolina has been rolling along of late. The Gamecocks have averaged nearly 33 points while winning the last three games and have been running the ball well in that span as well. A.J. Turner notched their first 100-yard game when he got 121 against Vandy last week.
But Georgia will represent the best defensive team South Carolina faced by far this season.
In the trenches
Georgia’s offense will be challenged by the second line of South Carolina’s defense. The Gamecocks feature one of the better linebacker corps in the league. T.J. Brunson and Skai Moore average nearly 15 tackles a game between them. Moore, a senior who seems like he has been at Carolina forever, also leads the team with two interceptions.
As always, linebackers are only as good as the defensive linemen who front them. The Gamecocks have a very experienced tackle Taylor Stallworth, who has 25 tackles and 2.5 for loss. But if the Bulldogs can prove they can handle Stallworth 1-on-1, the rest of the line is fairly inexperienced.
Georgia’s offensive line has been a revelation this season. Despite having new starters at all five positions, it has slowly developed into one of the best units in the conference. One of the keys has been the development of freshman Andrew Thomas at right tackle. He has started ever game this season and has been getting better with each week.
Conversely, the Gamecocks have one of the most veteran offensive line units in the SEC. They’re made up of three juniors and two seniors. They’re an excellent run-blocking group but have allowed 18 sacks. Forcing South Carolina into must-throw situations will help the Bulldogs handle them.