Sara Yang/The Daily Gamecock

Column: Georgia matchup huge for SEC East race implications

The South Carolina football team will battle “between the hedges” in Athens, Georgia, against a very tough Georgia team led by Kirby Smart on Saturday.

Georgia (8-0, 5-0 SEC), has proved itself to be a contender for a national championship. The Bulldogs are led by a two-headed rushing monster: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both running backs are more than capable of breaking a game wide open at any moment. Georgia is 10th in the nation in rushing yards per game at 284. To have a chance of winning, the Gamecocks’ front seven must give their best effort to at least slow down Chubb and Michel’s production. 

On the other side of the ball, Georgia is just as good. The Bulldogs are only giving up 11.9 points per game, giving them the third best mark in the nation. The defense is led by Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith, who both lead by example. Smith is the team’s leading tackler, while Carter is the team’s leader in sacks. The Gamecocks' offensive line must hold them back, allow quarterback Jake Bentley to be comfortable and make accurate throws downfield in order to give the Gamecocks a shot at winning. 

Quick Facts:

Georgia is ranked No. 1 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, which came out Tuesday. This is the Gamecocks’ first matchup with an SEC opponent ranked No. 1 since 2010 when they knocked off Alabama at home.

The last six meetings between these teams have been split, 3-3, with Georgia winning the past year's at William-Brice Stadium.

This is Jake Bentley’s first career start versus the Bulldogs. He must play confidently and showcase his leadership skills in order for the Gamecocks to win.

Last year, the Bulldogs trampled the Gamecock defense with 326 yards on the ground. With one of the strongest backfield duos in the nation, look for Georgia to come out of the gates run heavy.

This is the latest meeting between the two schools since 1939. Georgia is 4-0 all time when the game is played in November.

Looking at the schedule ahead

It’s not too often that the Gamecocks' SEC East hopes are still alive come November, but this year they are sitting at second in the SEC East, hungry to move up to the top spot. South Carolina is sitting at 4-2 in the conference, while Georgia is 5-0. Other than Georgia, the Gamecocks face Florida at home to round out their SEC schedule this year. Georgia, on the other hand, still has Auburn (away) and Kentucky (home) remaining. It is safe to say that Georgia is not guaranteed a perfect regular season just yet. 

With a win on Saturday, the Gamecocks would improve to 5-2 and Georgia would drop to 5-1. This would greatly improve the Gamecocks’ chances of winning the SEC East, because they would beat out Georgia for the top spot if it comes down to a tie. In order for the Gamecocks to secure the top spot, Georgia would also need to lose to Auburn but not to Kentucky. 

If Kentucky were to pull an upset on the Bulldogs — assuming they win the rest of their SEC matchups — Kentucky would then leap frog both teams since it defeated the Gamecocks earlier in the season. However, the Gamecocks can only control one thing: how they play. They can’t control anything that happens before or after the game with other opponents. If they win on Saturday, they will put themselves in a prime position to win the East. If they lose, the Gamecocks can still reach a respectable bowl game and potentially finish with nine or 10 wins on the year. 

How South Carolina can beat Georgia 

There are multiple things South Carolina must do right to win in between the hedges. First and foremost, the Gamecocks must weather the storm that comes with playing in Athens. The crowd will be fired up now that Georgia is ranked first in the nation. Furthermore, the Gamecocks have a lot of ties to the Peach State with 24 players from Georgia on their roster. Nerves and emotions will be running high as the game gets under way. It is imperative that head coach Will Muschamp and his staff do a good job of keeping their players locked in. Offensively, the Gamecocks must win the battle in the trenches. Whether it is running the ball or protecting Bentley, the guys up front must pitch a flawless performance.  

Bentley must make smart decisions on where he is going with the ball. The Gamecocks love to run run-pass options, in which Bentley has to read the defense and make a call on whether it will be a run or pass play. It is up to Bentley to read Georgia’s formations correctly and call the plays that will get the ball moving in a positive direction. Look for new receivers to make big plays. Georgia will most likely key in on Bryan Edwards and Hayden Hurst specifically. If the Gamecocks are able to control the ball, move it downfield, and win the battle in the trenches, the offense will have a much easier time scoring points Saturday.

Defensively, it is quite obvious what the Gamecocks must do: stop the run. If Chubb and Michel get loose, it is going to be a long day for Travaris Robinson and his crew. Even if the Gamecocks can’t eliminate the production from Chubb and Michel, their impact needs to be minimal. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm is definitely capable of moving the ball on his own and scoring, but not to the same level as Chubb and Michel. If the Gamecocks can slow the run game, force Fromm to make quick decisions and force a few turnovers, the Gamecocks will have plenty of chances to steal one in Athens.

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