ATHENS - For 20 years, ever since South Carolina joined the SEC, its matchup with Georgia had come in one of the first three weeks of the season. So yes, it seems a little strange to be turning attention to the Gamecocks this far into a season.
“I think the biggest difference is we’ll be watching this year’s film,” said Georgia head coach Mark Richt, laughing slightly.
Of course, what he sees of that film isn't starkly different from the past two years, when Georgia lost to its SEC border rival to the north.
The Gamecocks still have tailback Marcus Lattimore, who gashed the Bulldog defense in 2010. And they still have defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who wrecked havoc with Aaron Murray and company last year.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Telegraph
So Richt was asked about both those Gamecock players on Sunday, as the Bulldogs moved on from Saturday's 51-44 win over Tennessee and began focusing on No. 6 South Carolina.
First, on Lattimore:
“He does seem to play even better as the game wears on," Richt said. "I think most defenses, when they’re fresh, when it’s early in the game, they run faster, they hit harder, they make less mistakes. I think as fatigue begins to set in (during) a particular game, or a back really begins to finish his runs with physicality, at times guys get back it. Even our man (Todd) Gurley he was running in such a way that no one really wanted to take him on, other than just trying to go low, trying to shoot at his legs. I think that’s what happens sometimes, people get tired of that pounding. I think that’s what happened, Lattimore’s had enough stamina to just pound people.”
As for Clowney, the problem is the Gamecocks also have Devin Taylor at the other end spot.
“They are outstanding, there’s no doubt about it," Richt said. "They are super tall, athletic, they really have outstanding technique. They’re much more physical against the run than they were a year ago. They really are complete players now – and there’s two of them. So you can’t just slide your protection to one guy without freeing up the other one to have some type of one-on-one. So there’s gonna be times where we probably do some chipping, and double-teaming, and sliding to them. There’s gonna be times where guys just have to man up and block them.
"So hopefully we’ll have a good enough mix of run and pass and play-action pass to keep them where they’re just not 100 percent sure we’re dropping back and passing the football. That’s when they do the most damage in the pass rush. Hopefully we can keep a good job of the combination of sliding protection to one of them or chipping the guy on the way out. Or whatever it takes to get the ball off. We’ve just gotta be able to find different ways to keep them a little off balance.”
Georgia has its own stud pass-rusher in Jarvis Jones, but the junior from Columbus was held in check by Tennessee. Richt said the Volunteers were able to use the play-action, quick-gain. And when they dropped back, they blocked well.
“I just think they blocked well," Richt said. "We just weren’t able to get there and when we did get close enough, (quarterback Tyler) Bray did a pretty good job of getting rid of the ball instead of taking a sack.”
South Carolina opened as a slight favorite, 2 or 2.5 points depending on the betting line. But since a three-point advantage is usually thrown the home team's way, that speaks to this largely being seen as a toss-up. And Richt knows the stakes are very high. He pointed out that Florida, the other remaining unbeaten team in the SEC East, plays earlier in the day against LSU. So the winner could be in first place alone, or will at least be tied with a chance to beat Florida later in the season.
“Either way the winner of that game is going to be in first place and in control of their own destiny. And the loser is gonna be two games behind that opponent,” Richt said. “If we were to lose, South Carolina loses, we have to lose twice to get them in. Unless there’s some kind of three-way tie, which is possible as well.“So yeah it’s a big, big game right now. When you start playing this deep into the conference season and you’ve got two undefeated, it’s huge.”