Georgia’s second game of the season provides its first test, and it’s an all-important game for the landscape of the SEC East standings.
As it travels to Williams-Brice Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS) to face South Carolina, Georgia can solidify its place as the preseason favorite to win the division with a victory. With a road loss, however, the path to Atlanta for its second-consecutive SEC title game becomes significantly tougher as the Gamecocks would have to lose two conference games for Georgia to reclaim the top spot.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart holds a 2-0 record against the Gamecocks, with his first-career win coming by a two-touchdown margin in Columbia. As the friendly rivalry between Smart and South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp is renewed, this bout may have the most at stake.
Before Georgia enters the a raucous environment and hears echoes of “Sandstorm” over the loudspeaker, here are five things to know about the conference opener.
1. Will Tyrique McGhee play?
When junior defensive back and Peach County product Tyrique McGhee suffered a broken foot in the preseason, Georgia’s hope was that he could return for the trip to face the Gamecocks.
On Tuesday, during the media’s first available viewing period of the week, McGhee was a full participant — for eight minutes at least. He was performing in sled drills with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. There didn’t seem to be any limited movement or setback, but when the media walked away, McGhee’s workload was more tempered.
“He was able to take, I’d say, probably 25 percent of the reps,” Smart said. “We got a lot of reps on Tuesday, and he took probably a quarter of them. He had fresher legs than some of the other guys. We’re hoping he’ll be able to play, but I don’t think we’ll know probably until closer to the end of the week.’’
A clear indicator of McGhee’s availability won’t be given until the travel roster is released at Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday.
2. Handling the noise
A number of freshmen will have their first look at Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday. A capacity crowd of rowdy Gamecocks fans won’t be an easy test. In fact, it won’t be anything comparable to playing in a high school stadium.
In Georgia’s last venture to Williams-Brice Stadium, the crowd was tempered due to a game rescheduling after the threat of Hurricane Matthew to the South Carolina coast.
“Their fan base will be turned out and have a lot of people there,” Smart said. “Because I know. I’ve been there. I understand. Not a lot of our guys have because the last time we played there was a Sunday.”
As the noise becomes deafening and players won’t be able to hear verbal cues, the challenge lies in turnovers.
A positive number in the turnover margin will be advantageous and could decide whether Georgia pulls out the road victory. Last season, South Carolina had a plus-11 turnover margin, but was minus-1 in its losses. In the 2017 contest, the Bulldogs had a plus-2 margin.
“It’s about playing to your standard. There will be ups and downs, and it’s how you respond to adversity,” Georgia safety J.R. Reed said.
3. Which receivers travel?
Georgia’s wide receiver corps dealt with some attrition against Austin Peay as Terry Godwin, Jayson Stanley and Kearis Jackson were all sidelined with injuries. As the Bulldogs enter SEC play, all of those offensive playmakers could be available.
Godwin, who was dealing with a calf injury throughout preseason practice, was a full participant ahead of Saturday’s game after not practicing in the prior week. Stanley is “back to normal,” according to Smart, after dealing with a quad injury, and he is a viable option on special teams.
Jackson, as a freshman, carries uncertainty as to whether he will contribute due to Georgia’s depth at the position. Smart said Georgia won’t “take a guy that’s not going to be able to play,” so the intrigue lies in who the Bulldogs travel on its 70-man roster and who is sidelined back in Athens.
“We’ll figure out the right 70 to take, based on depth, special teams, how many of those receivers can play,” Smart said. “If all of them can play, then we’ll try to take probably whatever it takes. I don’t know … nine, 10, 11.”
4. Use of bulletin board material
Tori Gurley played at South Carolina from 2009-11 and went 2-1 against the Bulldogs in his career. But seven seasons after he last played for the Gamecocks, he re-entered the spotlight of the conference series.
In July, Gurley made a bold statement at SEC Media Days in Atlanta.
“That’s something I’m going to guarantee that South Carolina gets the win at home,” he said on the Paul Finebaum Show. “Yes. In Williams-Brice in front of 80,000, on CBS.”
Nearly eight weeks after that quote, one may think it could be an afterthought … until Georgia opted to use it as bulletin board material. On the walls of the football weight room, 48 copies of Gurley’s quote were taped to the wall.
“I just take it as a somebody supporting their team. It’s the same thing I’ll say if I’m out of college,” Georgia sophomore safety Richard LeCounte said. “I’m an alumnus of Georgia, so yeah, Georgia is going to win.”
Added offensive guard Ben Cleveland: “It’s plastered all over the walls. We don’t really dwell on it. We just know what we need to do.”
Watch to see if Georgia will use this chatter as motivation.
5. Deebo Samuel and the Gamecocks’ offense
When South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel was asked about Georgia senior cornerback and All-American DeAndre Baker, Samuel tried to play it off.
“Who?” he asked.
Surely, Samuel knows of Baker as they faced each other in 2016, the last time Samuel was healthy when these two teams squared off. Smart and the Bulldogs, on the other hand, gave many compliments to Samuel, as they know the challenges he can pose.
Samuel is a part of a Gamecock offense that features a number of playmakers, along with wide receiver Bryan Edwards, quarterback Jake Bentley (who tallied 250 passing yards to open his third season) and running back Rico Dowdle.
Against Coastal Carolina in a 49-15 win, the Gamecocks posted 557 total offensive yards. This test against Georgia’s defense will be significantly tougher, but how much can the Bulldogs’ young group limit South Carolina?