Gamecocks look to stay alive in SEC East race when Georgia comes to town
Put simply, Georgia’s a buzz saw.
And after their first game ended in a 45-21 battering of Clemson, the Bulldogs are looking for another block of wood to go through.
Saturday’s marquee matchup in college football wasn’t supposed to be a David vs. Goliath scenario. No. 6 Georgia and No. 24 South Carolina began the season ranked 12th and 9th, respectively. At the start of the year, the Gamecocks were favored to win the SEC East and Georgia was nipping at their heels, just outside of the top-10.
But the narrative of the 2014 season has read much differently than the prologue, and Saturday will see South Carolina (1-1) fighting for its life, and Georgia (1-0) looking to stay on the fast track to the College Football Playoff.
“I know our fans are looking forward to it — 3:30 here at Williams-Brice — and we’re going to try our best to give them something to cheer about,” head coach Steve Spurrier said. “We need to play better, so we’re trying to do that.”
The Bulldogs opened as 3.5-point favorites against South Carolina, a modest point spread, considering Georgia won their only game of the season by 24 points in the same week the Gamecocks lost by that same number.
*THE SANDSTORM EFFECT*
The great equalizer here — and the probable cause for Georgia’s noticeably slim advantage — is Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Bulldogs make the trek from Athens to Columbia every other season, and for the last 20 years, it’s been a dogfight. Georgia leads the series 5-4 in the last nine meetings on the Gamecocks’ home turf, but the Bulldogs have been unable to score more than 20 points in Columbia since 1994.
The most recent meeting between these two teams at Williams-Brice was one of the most lopsided affairs in the series’ history. As Gamecock fans will recall, South Carolina shut Georgia out in the first half on its way to a 35-7 victory, the biggest blowout in the rivalry since 1974.
Though the Gamecocks’ record-breaking 18-game home winning streak was snapped at the beginning of this season, South Carolina has crafted a unique home-field atmosphere that sticks with visiting players long after they leave Columbia.
To prepare themselves, Georgia players have been practicing this week with simulated crowd noise and a 1999 Danish techno song called “Sandstorm” blaring in the background.
“When Sandstorm first starts on first kick-off, both sidelines are excited,” redshirt senior quarterback Dylan Thompson said. “But if we get on a roll like we have in the past here in different games, it becomes kind of annoying for those guys.”
*‘COULD GET A LITTLE BLOODY’*
As the quality of competition between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs has ramped up in recent history, the ferocity of the rivalry has, too.
Georgia will always have its traditional clashes between Florida and Georgia Tech, and South Carolina’s yearly meeting with Clemson will always be a blood feud. The two teams have traded wins over years, launching their distaste for one another to an all-time high.
And in the build-up to this year’s installment, Georgia head coach Mark Richt perhaps described the rivalry’s current state best.
“I’ve got a feeling this game could get a little bloody,” he said. “Before it’s over, it may get down to a little bit of a fistfight.”
Regardless of records or rankings, “Georgia Week” has become one of the most electric atmospheres in Columbia on a yearly basis, centered on the fact that the winner seemingly gains an advantage in the SEC East race.
At least, that’s what it looks like at face value.
Georgia has reached the conference title game in two of the last three years, narrowly missing out on the Eastern Division title one year ago. In each of those two championship seasons, the Bulldogs have lost to South Carolina. And last year, when Georgia broke the Gamecocks’ miniature run of dominance, the Bulldogs were on the outside looking in when it came time for the SEC Championship.
But this season, with one loss already to its name, South Carolina can’t afford to play those odds. “It’s pretty much a must for the division. If we’re going to have a shot to win the division, [beating Georgia] would be very helpful,” Spurrier said. “Certainly both teams, I think, would like to win it. You’d think whoever wins it would have a little bit of a better chance.”
*‘AND THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE’*
While the weight of this game can be measured in tons, this weekend’s battle with Georgia isn’t the top of the mountain for South Carolina’s season. Just three games into the 2014 campaign, both of last year’s conference title game competitors in Auburn and Missouri are waiting down the road.
A win Saturday would by no means punch the Gamecocks’ ticket to Atlanta and the SEC Championship in early December.
A loss to the Bulldogs, though, would all but eliminate South Carolina from contention.
“You come here to play in these games and have the opportunity to play against a great team in a good atmosphere,” Thompson said. “And that’s why we’re here, to play this game, this challenge, and just go out there with your brothers and compete.”