ATLANTA — There is not necessarily a bunch of buzz surrounding Georgia’s SEC opener against South Carolina in Columbia on Sept. 8. Perhaps there should be.
Based on preseason prognostications, the game will feature the top two teams from the Eastern Division. More than that, the game will be played in the early September heat at Williams-Brice Stadium. For the Bulldogs, that place has been a house of horrors at that spot on the schedule, even in the years they came in with a stacked team and won.
Georgia can expect a war any time it visits Columbia. That only intensifies when it’s competed as the SEC opener.
“The energy and electricity in that building when the game matters may be one of the best in the SEC, and it’s not friendly to whomever the opponent may be,” said former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley, who’s now a football analyst with the SEC Network. “I loved playing there just for that reason. It got me going!”
Since 2000, the Bulldogs are 5-4 against South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium. More telling is the aggregate score in those nine games. The Gamecocks have actually outscored Georgia 155 points to 151 in those contests. When it was played as the SEC opener over that span, three of the Bulldogs’ four wins were by seven or fewer points and they lost three by an average of 14 points.
Even when the Bulldogs arrived with a loaded team that went on to great things, they had to fight for their football lives in that stadium. The eventual SEC champions of 2002, which would go 13-1 that year, needed a one-handed, snatch-and-grab interception for a touchdown by Pollack and a goal-line stand in the final minute to score a 13-7 victory. The 2004 team that’d finish No. 7 in the nation squeaked out a four-point win (20-16).
Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley never won in Columbia as Georgia was winless there from 2010-14. The 2012 team that won represented the East in the SEC championship game lost to the Gamecocks by four touchdowns in Williams-Brice.
Some of those South Carolina squads proved to be exceptional over the long haul of the season. Others weren’t, necessarily. But the common thread is most of the games have been conducted at the spot in the schedule that this year’s game will. That is, early in the season when the weather is hot and the Gamecocks’ hopes remain intact.
Meanwhile, Georgia is viewed by South Carolina as one of its biggest rivals, second only to Clemson. There is already is anticipation in Columbia.
“I can assure you it will be hot,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “We need to have a great training camp before we start focusing on that. We have to focus on winning every day and getting better. Certainly we know that game is looming. But the winner or loser is not going to determine the East. There’s a lot of football left to be played after that game regardless of the circumstances or outcome of that game.”
South Carolina represents a particularly hopeful team this year. By all accounts, it sets up to be the best squad Muschamp has trotted out in his brief tenure as head coach. The Gamecocks return eight starters on offense, most notably quarterback Jake Bentley, who is considered one of the best in the SEC. They’ll be under the direction of former UGA assistant and interim head coach Bryan McClendon, who takes over as offensive coordinator.
There are some questions on defense, which is in midst of a mild rebuild while trying to identify five new starters. But that unit is built around inside linebacker T.J. Brunson, another Carolina player considered among the best in the league at his position.
As for motivation, there will be no shortage of supply. The Gamecocks boast 24 players on their roster from Georgia, 16 of them from the metro Atlanta. That’s not a happenstance.
“We made recruiting Atlanta a priority when we got to South Carolina,” said Muschamp, a native of Rome.
Muschamp is, of course, a UGA alum and football letterman. He’s a close personal friend and one-time teammate of Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
“I have tremendous respect for Kirby and his staff,” said Muschamp, who is 15-11 after two seasons at South Carolina, matching the all-time best starts of Steve Spurrier and Joe Morrison. “They had a complete football team last year, offensively, defensively and special teams. They were tough in all three areas and they’re well-coached, they have good players. They recruit at a high level.”
Muschamp is pretty good on that front as well. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who also heavily recruit the Atlanta area, was lauding Muschamp on that skill on Thursday. And South Carolina is giving him plenty of assets to work with. The Gamecocks are expected to complete construction on its new 110,000 square foot “football operations facility” at the end of the regular season this year. It was a $50 million project.
“It’s been a difference-maker for us,” Muschamp said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been recruiting well. When you invest in the student-athlete like we are at South Carolina and never have before, it make a difference. When a young man and his family come on campus, they see the investment we’re making.”