ATHENS -- When South Carolina arrives in Athens this weekend, it will be the slight favorite and be ranked No. 12 in the nation. Georgia, once dominant in stature over its border rival, will be unranked and with its head coach under fire.
There’s a basic reason that can explain the switch in fortunes -- recruiting.
The Gamecocks have had a strong -- some might say lucky -- run of in-state talent, and they have managed to keep them home: Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Jadeveon Clowney and Stephon Gilmore may all end up being first-round picks.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are still waiting for major production from their past three recruiting classes. And their last big success out of South Carolina was A.J. Green, now an NFL rookie.
As a result, it can easily be argued that the Gamecocks will have more talent than the Bulldogs on Saturday. Or at least star power.
“It starts at the top, obviously with Lattimore and Clowney,” said Chad Simmons, the national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “But Lattimore and Gilmore have been what kind of have started to set them on the rise.”
Lattimore had his coming-out party against Georgia last year, rushing for 182 yards in South Carolina’s 17-6 win. Clowney, a defensive end, was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But he’s joined on the line by end Devin Taylor, who had 7.5 sacks last year and is another South Carolina native.
Gilmore is the star junior cornerback. Safety DeVonte Holloman was Gilmore’s teammate in high school.
Jeffery, a receiver, is already rated as a possible high first-round pick. He was originally a Southern California commitment three years ago before the Gamecocks convinced him to stay home.
“The reason we have hope is that we’ve been able to recruit the best players in our state,” Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said at the SEC media days this July.
Georgia and South Carolina haven’t gone head-to-head on many of the aforementioned prospects. Georgia tried with Lattimore for awhile. Slowly, Auburn took Georgia’s spot as the main out-of-state competition.
As for Clowney, Georgia head coach Mark Richt said this week, “It was pretty early that we knew we didn’t have much of a shot at that kid.”
But a closer recruiting battle between the schools may have started the Gamecocks’ run, according to Simmons. Defensive end Cliff Matthews picked South Carolina four years ago and is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Matthews was from Cheraw, S.C.
“South Carolina has always produced an elite player or two. It just happens now that they’re staying at home,” Simmons said. “They haven’t had the depth that a Georgia or a Florida has. But they’ve always had at the top that one player that people on both coasts want to pursue.”
Meanwhile, Georgia is still waiting for production from some recent classes.
Its “Dream Team” class of this past February may prove to be great. But only tailback Isaiah Crowell and receiver Malcolm Mitchell saw significant action in the season-opening loss to Boise State.
The 2010 class probably won’t feature a single starter in Saturday’s game. Linebacker Alec Ogletree and guard Kenarious Gates would have started, but they’re out with injuries.
The 2009 class has several key contributors (quarterback Aaron Murray, tight end Orson Charles, cornerback Branden Smith). But the Bulldogs are still waiting on players like Marlon Brown, Rantavious Wooten and Kwame Geathers to reach their true potential. And tailback Washaun Ealey, quarterback Zach Mettenberger and defensive end Montez Robinson are all gone from the program.
“They’ve definitely had, I guess what you’d call, some misses. More misses than gets,” Simmons said.
Geathers, the nose tackle, is the team’s last remaining significant player from South Carolina. Richt vowed this week that his program wouldn’t stop recruiting in the Palmetto State.
But he gave Spurrier and the Gamecocks credit for their in-state recruiting success.
“You can’t you let your best in your state leave,” Richt said. “South Carolina, I think the number of Division I and SEC players is less than in other states. They’re fighting Clemson in their own state. I’m sure they can’t afford to lose those types of players and we feel the same way.
“But when they were able to get Lattimore, and were able to get Clowney, that was a big deal. And it just so happened that the best players in their state just happened to be maybe the best players in the country at their position, which doesn’t happen every year. But the last two years it has. And they knocked it out, they got those guys.”