ATHENS, Ga. — At the risk of offending Steve Spurrier to the point that he might take his visor and go to the beach or initiate a smear campaign to have me fired or censored, I’m going to give my opinion about who I think will win Saturday’s massive Southeastern Conference East showdown.
It’s just an opinion, designed to spark conversation and not push the mute button of overly sensitive millionaire coaches.
The 2012 version of Georgia vs. South Carolina is prompting all kinds of opinions. This is arguably the most anticipated matchup the two border rivals have ever waged. The only one remotely as intriguing was the 1980 game – featuring Herschel Walker and the No. 4 Bulldogs en route to a national title against the No. 14 Gamecocks and George Rogers on his way to a Heisman Trophy. Georgia still believes it should have won both of them that day, but they had to settle for just the 13-10 victory.
The stakes in this one, however, are far greater than that bygone nonconference tussle. It’s not quite Alabama-Louisiana State “Game of the Century” caliber, but it’s close.
Both teams are undefeated. Both are ranked in the top 10 (Georgia is No. 5 and South Carolina No. 6). Both are capable of running the table and competing for the SEC’s annual place in the national championship conversation. Both boast championship-caliber defenses. And both feature running backs drawing favorable comparisons to their legendary predecessors.
Not surprisingly, both head coaches are calling it “a big one.”
“It’s one of those games that most kids dream about playing in,” Georgia’s Mark Richt said. “So here it is right about the halfway mark of the regular season. We’re going to find out who is going to keep pace in the Eastern Division race. It’s a big one.”
Said Spurrier: “If you’re fortunate to keep winning, they all get bigger and bigger as you go. This is a big one for us. ... Hopefully we’ll have bigger ones as we go through the year.”
With conference expansion forcing a temporary schedule adjustment that moved this border clash from its traditional place at the front end of the season, this marks the first time as conference foes that the Bulldogs and Gamecocks are in midseason form for a game that is proving more decisive every year.
Yet despite matching 5-0 records, both still have big-game questions to answer in front of ESPN’s GameDay and a national primetime audience.
The biggest one: how will the most productive offense in Georgia history fare in its first test against a top-tier defense? (And vice versa.)
“Without a doubt this is the biggest test for our offensive line,” said Richt, who has no such questions about his skill players including quarterback Aaron Murray and “Gurshall” – breakout freshmen rushing stars Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
On the flip side, can Marcus Lattimore continue to haunt a much more experienced Bulldogs corps the way he did the previous two years? And can Connor Shaw’s arm and legs find enough creases in the Georgia defense to keep up if this becomes another shootout?
“If we’re to win (Lattimore) probably needs to have another big day,” said Spurrier of his primary weapon who averaged 179 yards in two games against Georgia.
The oddsmakers consider this game such a toss-up that South Carolina has been given a one-point home advantage. It’s a fair point considering the Gamecocks have lost only once (Kentucky 2010) to an SEC East opponent since 2009. South Carolina has never beaten Georgia in three consecutive meetings.
“Things have changed around here a bit,” said Spurrier of the culture shift he’s brought to Columbia. “Being very competitive with everyone in the conference is something that certainly we’re proud of. We’re competitive. We’re not the best team, but we’re up there amongst the best teams right now obviously by looking at the records.”
This game will likely decide who wrestles with Florida for the division title. The winner can probably afford to lose one (and the Gamecocks face road tests at LSU and Florida the next two weeks), but the loser must rely on others to have any chance.
“I think the more we keep winning, the more important every game gets,” Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said. “If we win this game, we’re in control of our destiny as far as the SEC East goes.”
So who wins that control? My opinion on that changes almost by the minute. If these Georgia and South Carolina teams played each other 10 times, the winner would likely be no better than 6-4. But they get only one shot, and one team has to step up on a big stage and make it happen.
By the narrowest of margins, I think that team on Saturday night will be Georgia. Just something tells me that the Bulldogs offense will have a little more success than the Gamecocks offense. Georgia’s defense is only playing its second game at full strength, giving them a slight edge in the trending upside department.
The higher scoring, the better it gets for the Bulldogs – assuming they avoid the catastrophic mistakes of a year ago that gifted the Gamecocks 21 points in a 45-42 victory.
Something in the 23-20 range seems about right in a game that typically winds up defensive oriented but has too much offense to become Alabama-LSU boring.
Spurrier probably won’t like that pick, but my guess is he’ll be happy to talk about it if he proves it wrong.