NO. 5 GEORGIA AT NO. 6 SOUTH CAROLINA
Saturday, 7 p.m.
Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, S.C.
Records: Georgia 5-0 (3-0 SEC), South Carolina 5-0 (3-0)
Last week: Georgia beat Tennessee 51-44. South Carolina beat Kentucky 38-17
What’s the story?: The showdown we’ve all been waiting for has arrived, and Georgia and South Carolina both managed to stay undefeated to this point, setting up the first top-10 matchup in series history -- one that could determine the course of the SEC East race. ESPN College GameDay will be in Columbia and a prime-time TV audience will be watching as one team keeps its national title hopes intact and one falls into also-ran territory.
1. Welcome to the big time: No doubt about it, this is one of the biggest games in the SEC East this season. The winner will control its own destiny in the conference race, while the loser will have to hope for some good luck. Neither team has played in such a high-pressure situation often, so whoever is able to best ignore the outside elements will have an advantage.
2. Is Lattimore back? In the second half of last week’s win against Kentucky, South Carolina’s tailback Marcus Lattimore looked like the same superstar who dominated Georgia in two previous meetings before suffering a serious knee injury last season. Lattimore’s workload has not been especially heavy since he returned, but he carried the load against Kentucky, leading the Gamecocks to a comeback victory with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Georgia will no doubt focus on stopping him first after his previous successes against the Bulldogs, and the outcome might hinge on whether he can be the same effective player as before.
3. Georgia’s offense: monster or mirage? Quarterback Aaron Murray, freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, an improved offensive line and stellar receiving corps have posted eye-popping offensive totals thus far. The Bulldogs have scored 40-plus points in a school-record five straight games and lead the SEC with an average of 536 yards per game. But the Bulldogs have not faced a defense of South Carolina’s caliber. How they fare against an impressive Gamecocks defense will be the best indicator yet as to Georgia’s true offensive capabilities.
Players to watch:
1. John Theus: The freshman right tackle has been OK so far, but he’ll need to be a lot better than that against South Carolina defensive end Devin Taylor. Theus is in a tough position, with a highly ranked team counting on him as a true freshman, but he has performed well at times. If he -- and the tight ends and running backs who will likely provide assists at times -- can keep Taylor from pushing him around, that will be a big win for Georgia.
2. Alec Ogletree: Ogletree darted all over the field last week against Tennessee, recording a career-high 14 tackles and nearly intercepting three Tyler Bray passes. It wasn’t a particularly disciplined performance, but it showcased the speed and aggressiveness that have made Ogletree a top prospect for next year’s NFL draft. Ogletree has never squared off with Lattimore. If he can help slow down the Gamecocks star, the South Carolina offense won’t be nearly as effective.
3. Malcolm Mitchell: Georgia has two established receivers (Tavarres King and Marlon Brown) in addition to Michael Bennett, the team’s leading receiver who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Tuesday’s practice. Without Bennett available, the Bulldogs need Mitchell to return to the form that made him one of the team’s most productive wideouts last season. He was rusty last week in his first true game on offense after chipping in at cornerback to offset depth issues for the first few games. Georgia needs the Mitchell of 2011 to reemerge against South Carolina.
1. Lattimore: The tailback has dominated against Georgia in two previous games with 358 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He will be the focal point of the Bulldogs’ defensive effort. If he can still run effectively, the Gamecocks have to like their chances of victory.
2. Connor Shaw: South Carolina’s quarterback has been impressively efficient, completing 78 percent of his passes and doing just enough through the air to make his rushing ability even more effective. The Bulldogs will no doubt try to stop the run first and make Shaw beat them with the pass. At some point, he’s going to have to complete some clutch throws if the Gamecocks are to win.
3. D.J. Swearinger: The safety is one of the biggest hitters on South Carolina’s defense and one of its most experienced players. He and the Gamecocks’ secondary will have their work cut out against Georgia’s explosive passing game, although they have been an opportunistic bunch thus far. South Carolina has seven interceptions this season including a season-high four against East Carolina.
Georgia’s offensive line vs. South Carolina’s defensive front
Will Friend’s rebuilt offensive line has earned raves from Georgia’s coaches and players for its vast improvement since spring practice -- and that group has managed to clear enormous holes for Gurley and Marshall to exploit. But South Carolina’s deep and talented defensive line -- led by ends Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney -- will be by far the biggest test Georgia’s line will have faced thus far.
By the Numbers
1. Eight of 11. Recent series history dictates that this should be a close game. The Bulldogs are 7-4 against South Carolina under coach Mark Richt, but eight of those 11 games were decided by seven points or less, including four of the last five.
2. 3-9. Georgia is just 3-9 when ESPN College GameDay broadcasts from the site of a Bulldogs game, although UGA is 3-3 in such instances at an opponent’s stadium. Georgia lost the last time it played when GameDay was in town, falling to LSU in the 2011 SEC Championship Game. Other GameDay visits (2008 home loss to Alabama, 2007 win at Alabama, 2005 loss to Florida, 2004 loss at Auburn, 2004 win at South Carolina, 2003 loss at LSU, 2002 loss to Florida, 2002 win at Alabama, 1999 loss to Florida, 1998 home loss to Tennessee, 1995 loss at Tennessee).
3. 0-4. South Carolina’s football tradition is nowhere near as rich as most of its SEC brethren, as evidenced by this being just the fifth game in school history that both the Gamecocks and their opponent have been ranked in the top 10. South Carolina is 0-4 in the previous contests (No. 7 South Carolina lost 21-14 to No. 9 Oklahoma State in the 1984 Gator Bowl, No. 8 South Carolina lost to No. 2 Miami 20-16 in 1987, No. 9 South Carolina lost to No. 7 LSU 30-13 in the 1987 Gator Bowl and No. 10 South Carolina lost 44-28 to No. 8 Arkansas last season.
On Deck: Georgia gets a midseason bye next week, with a visit to Kentucky awaiting on Oct. 20 and the annual visit to Jacksonville, Fla., for a game against rival Florida following on Oct. 27.