ATHENS — It’s always interesting to go back and look at Georgia’s history against teams whenever it’s getting ready play an opponent, particularly a traditional rival. And, to be clear, I see South Carolina as a rival for the Bulldogs.
Certainly the Gamecocks aren’t a rival in the sense that Florida, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Tennessee are. And I’d say Alabama, with Kirby Smart’s ties and with the teams’ respective places in the current national landscape, is picking up steam in the conscious of the Bulldog Nation.
But South Carolina is kind of always there, almost always pertinent, and Georgia can be sure it’s always going to get the Gamecocks’ best shot.
I know from personal experience what a big deal the Georgia game is over on the other side of that border. I have a bunch of extended family that live over that way, many of whom are South Carolina graduates and all of whom are passionate Gamecocks fans. To them, the Bulldogs are No. 2 only to Clemson on the totem poll of rivals. And a couple of Carolina players at SEC Media Days actually elevated UGA to No. 1 on that list because of what it means to their conference fortunes.
That’s probably appropriate. It’s certainly applicable this season in particular as South Carolina is a consensus preseason pick as the No. 2 team to Georgia in the SEC’s Eastern Division. So if the Gamecocks are to have any shot of playing for the SEC championship this year, then they absolutely need to take care of business against the Bulldogs Saturday (3:30 p.m.; CBS-TV; 750-AM & 95.5 FM).
But regardless of expectations, Georgia always — ALWAYS — can expect to get the Gamecocks’ best shot at Williams-Brice Stadium. It hasn’t exactly been a house of horrors for the Bulldogs, because they’ve won more than they’ve lost over there just like wherever they’ve played South Carolina. Georgia leads 50-18-2 in a series that has been played almost continuously since the 1960s. But the games over there have been particularly tight in Columbia since the Gamecocks joined the SEC in 1992.
In the 13 games since then, Georgia leads 8-5, with the average margin of victory plus-2 in favor of the Bulldogs. In general, when Georgia has won it has gotten out of there by a thread its silver britches, and when South Carolina has, it has tended beat the Bulldogs soundly.
That trend, by the way, tends to hold up regardless of record and ranking. Of course, Georgia and South Carolina typically play each other early in the season since the Gamecocks’ joined the league, and most often as the SEC opener. And that’s when they’ve been most dangerous as the host team. It probably helps South Carolina and its fan base’s psyche when the teams meet early and the Gamecocks haven’t had their hopes crushed yet that it could be special season. If there is one endearing trait of the South Carolina faithful, it’s that they go into every season believing “this will be the one.”
Regardless, the Gamecocks tend to give Georgia all it can handle. And that tends to be the case whether the Bulldogs’ are bringing a loaded team to Columbia or not. That’s obviously the case this year with Georgia (1-0) coming in ranked No. 3 and as defending SEC champions. The No. 24 Gamecocks (1-0) cracked the Top 25 poll for the first time since 2014 this past week, so they’re bringing in a team of promise as well.
But there are tons of examples of those records and rankings not mattering when it comes to these two teams meeting in Columbia early in the season. Let’s review some:
- Georgia was ranked No. 10 and South Carolina was not ranked when the Bulldogs needed a snatch-and-grab TD from David Pollack and a goal-line stand to win 13-7 in 2002. That Georgia team went 13-1, won the SEC and finished with a No. 3 national ranking. South Carolina was unranked and finished 5-7
- Same thing in 2004. Mark Richt’s Bulldogs came in ranked No. 4 and South Carolina was unranked. Yet Georgia trailed 16-0 in the second quarter and had to rally for a 20-16 victory. The Gamecocks went 6-5.
- In 2008, Georgia was ranked No. 3 in the nation and had opened the season No. 1 when it arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium. But the Bulldogs trailed 7-6 until late in the third quarter before a Knowshon Moreno touchdown and Matt Stafford 2-point conversion toss lifted them to a 14-7 victory.
- Probably the most stark example of a really good Georgia team struggling in Columbia came in 2012. That year, the Gamecocks also brought a really talented squad into the contest. They were ranked No. 7 to the Bulldogs’ 6, and quarterback Aaron Murray and his teammates never knew what hit them from the opening rendition of “Sandstorm” to the last rooster scream as Georgia fell 35-7. That UGA team, you’ll recall, finished No. 5 and came five yards away from playing Notre Dame for the national title.
Whenever both teams have been ranked, that usually hasn’t bode well for the Bulldogs. The last three times that happened — 2010, 2012 and 2014 — South Carolina has won.
That brings us back to our thesis about whether what has happened in the past in a rivalry matters in any particular year. Obviously, Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp would say it doesn’t, as would any coach getting ready to play any opponent anywhere. And philosophically that’s certainly true. Football, like most sports, comes down to personnel, matchups and execution.
And I really like the matchups and personnel for Georgia in this game. I believe the one between South Carolina’s passing attack, led by quarterback Jake Bentley and wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brad Edwards, favors the Gamecocks. But I wouldn’t give the nod to South Carolina in any other area of the breakdowns.
With the notable exception, that is, of the venue. I’d say that home-field advantage for the Gamecocks is worth a score or two, at least. And I really do believe all those other games are a factor, particularly those in recent history. Belief is an incredibly powerful emotion in sport, as it is in life. And that’s definitely the case when it comes to momentum in football.
For that reason, I believe it’s incredibly important for the Bulldogs to weather South Carolina’s best shots early on. They have to survive the adrenalin rush that’s going to come from the 2001 Space Odyssey entrance and the Sandstorm towel waves. In tennis terms, they have to return the Gamecocks’ best serve with a couple of early cross-court winners. They have to keep the Gamecocks and their faithful in doubt about whether they can hang with a Top 3 Georgia team and take the crowd out of the game.
Williams-Brice is one of the SEC’s toughest venues, particularly early in the year when the Gamecocks’ optimism is high like the temperature. The heat index for Saturday’s game is predicted to be 98 degrees.
I see the Bulldogs weathering the storm, but I expect it to be excruciatingly difficult journey like most of these trips to Columbia are. Georgia, 31-23.