After an opening weekend that was more exciting for its huge scores than actual good games, it’s time to play some meaningful conference matchups. You know, the sort of games that will tell the story for a few programs this year.
With all apologies to Florida and Kentucky fans, all SEC eyes will be on Columbia, S.C. this weekend for the first true impact game of the young season. Defending SEC champion Georgia takes on the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium, where the Bulldogs will try to begin answering the question — “can they do it again?”
South Carolina fans circled this game long ago, pointing to it as the moment when Jake Bentley, Will Muschamp and the rest of the Gamecock squad can finally announce to the college football world that they’re an SEC contender.
So South Carolina can win this game, right? Or at least keep it close? People are talking about an outright upset for the Gamecocks, not just covering 10 points.
But here is where South Carolina fans may want to look away. In almost every way South Carolina is good, UGA is better.
This is the most talented team South Carolina has had under Muschamp, sure. Bentley seems to be coming into his own, evidenced by a Week 1 thrashing of Coastal Carolina when he threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns. Mix in an incredible wide receiver group that includes Heisman sleeper Deebo Samuel, and you’ve got something.
New offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon brings a much more up-tempo feel to this offense, and that’s bringing excitement and chatter amongst fans. It’s a balanced attack that has the look and feel, at least early, as if it could be the most explosive offense we have seen in Columbia in years.
But still, Georgia holds an edge in almost every area that South Carolina touts, or at least comes close to matching it.
Here’s the breakdown:
With an offensive line averaging 6-foot-5 and 327 pounds in size, and returns four starters, the Dawgs will give even the best defenses a long day this year.
While South Carolina relies on explosive plays and shifty skill players, UGA lines up with a more consistent attack that deals body blows to its opponents on each snap.
Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner make for a formidable duo for South Carolina, sure, but give me D’Andre Swift, James Cook and Elijah Holyfield instead.
Andrew Thomas, Lamont Gaillard and Ben Cleveland will pave the way for them and could all become All-American offensive linemen before they leave Athens.
A steady stream of playmakers for the Dawgs, including Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and transfer Demetris Robertson, round out an offense that is more than capable of holding its own in every phase of the game. Samuel is electric, but Georgia’s right there.
The Georgia defense also features some of the same characteristics that make this offense such a threat. Consistency, speed and athleticism will be on full display across from Bentley on Saturday.
After a 2017 campaign with one of the best linebacking units Georgia has ever had, Kirby Smart has taken on the task of finding a new set of playmakers. Enter Natrez Patrick and D’Andre Walker — a pair of linebackers who will aim to alleviate the stresses of Georgia fans over the loss of players such as Roquan Smith.
Add in the return of Jonathan Ledbetter up front, along with the return of J.R. Reed and Deandre Baker in the defensive backfield, and this defensive unit has all the makings of a group that can possibly return to the glory of 2017, or at least come close.
The South Carolina defense has a more uphill climb to greatness. Even though they have talented players, the Gamecocks desperately need proven playmakers on defense. Two new starting safeties man a defensive backfield that has yet to find its stride under Muschamp.
Linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams returns after missing 10 games a year ago, which is good because defensive standout Skai Moore is gone. Buck defensive end D.J. Wonnum should be in for a stellar year as he tries to follow up an incredible 2017 campaign that saw him pile up 89 tackles to go along with 7.5 sacks.
But Georgia, even in a “rebuilding” year for its defense, has much more talent than South Carolina.
This is not all to say the Gamecocks have no chance, or that they won’t be able to make plays.
But Georgia brings something that every gambler craves: Consistency.
Bentley and Samuel will surely put their best foot forward Saturday in Columbia. But give me the grueling eight-yard runs. Give me the great offensive line over the great receiving corps. And give me the Bulldogs minus the points on Saturday night.
The Pick: UGA -10