No. 22 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina
Where: Williams-Brice Satdium, Columbia, S.C.
When: Noon (official kickoff 12:21 p.m.)
Last meeting: Georgia won, 41-37, last year in Athens.
Yes, Georgia won’t have A.J. Green. But it didn’t have him in the opener, and does get back RB Washaun Ealey and WR Tavarres King. The Bulldogs will still need to move the ball on the ground in order to take some pressure off freshman QB Aaron Murray, making his first SEC road start. The question is who will get those carries: Ealey missed the opener, Caleb King has had a twisted ankle, and third-stringer Carlton Thomas looked good in the opener. As for Murray, look for a few designed runs, but otherwise the best thing he could do is not make mistakes, and manage the offense well.
South Carolina has a lot of weapons: QB Stephen Garcia is an experienced starter who can pass and run, freshman RB Marcus Lattimore looks like a star, and the tall receivers, led by Alshon Jeffery, are inviting targets. The key for the Gamecocks is whether the offensive line does its job. The line has been the offense’s big problem the past few years, and while it didn’t allow a sack against Southern Miss, it gets a much stiffer test in the Bulldogs.
The debut of the 3-4, blitzing defense was a raging success … against Louisiana-Lafayette. But what about against Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks? The Bulldogs will need to continue what they did last week: Pressure the quarterback, and force Garcia into making mistakes. Expect even more blitzing than last week. But the Gamecock tall receivers could be a matchup problem for Georgia’s smaller cornerbacks, so look for the Bulldogs to try some zone coverages – and hope the blitzing forces Garcia into some bad throws.
South Carolina got Chris Culliver, one of its starting cornerbacks, off suspension, which should help. But the Gamecocks will still be without injured LB Shaq Wilson, their leading tackler last season. The Gamecocks’ run a 4-2-5, with an extra safety, but will they commit to stopping the run, and make Murray beat them, without Green to throw to?
Georgia should have an advantage here. The leg of Blair Walsh could buy them a field goal or two most teams wouldn’t get. Punter Drew Butler should also mean a lot in the field position battle. The return game, with Brandon Boykin on kickoffs and Branden Smith on punts, could uncork a few long runs too. (Boykin had a kickoff return touchdown last year against South Carolina.)
Spencer Lanning does the kicking and punting for South Carolina, and does an above-average job at both. Kick returner Bryce Sherman, who is generously listed at 5-foot-5, has track-star type speed. Stephon Gilmore, a star CB who also dabbles on offense, will return punts.
Todd Grantham, in his debut as Georgia’s defensive coordinator last week, probably withheld some looks, saving some for South Carolina. But still expect a lot of blitzing. His matchup against Steve Spurrier, who seems to be the main play-caller again, is quite intriguing.
South Carolina’s Ellis Johnson, the associate head coach for defense, has had plenty of battles through the years with Georgia’s Mark Richt and Mike Bobo. There’s a lot of experience on both ends there.
Offense: Georgia’s offensive line vs. South Carolina’s front four. The Bulldogs’ veteran five starters could have had a better opener, and they need to be at the top of their game today, since Murray needs protection and a good running game. The Gamecocks are also experienced on their defensive line, and Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor can make big plays.
Defense: Georgia’s linebackers vs. South Carolina’s blockers. It’s hard to see Georgia winning if it doesn’t get a lot of pressure on Garcia. Look for Justin Houston, Darryl Gamble and occasionally Akeem Dent to blitz a lot from the outside. The Gamecocks will counter with quick strikes or by hoping their backs and tackles can move out to pick up the blitz.
Prediction: Georgia 23, South Carolina 20.