One of the most pivotal games for the SEC Eastern Division race starts tomorrow at 4:30. South Carolina comes to Athens to play the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Classic City is excited–but only cautiously. The opening loss to Clemson took a lot of wind out of the Bulldog fanhood’s sails, and many citizens in the Bulldog Nation aren’t very optimistic about this weekend.
I got a chance to chat with Todd Blackledge and Brad Nessler–the ESPN announcers who will be calling the game along with Holly Rowe–over at the Butts-Mehre building on the UGA campus today, and neither one of them was too convinced that Georgia fans should throw in the towel just yet.
Blackledge told me to expect fewer points than the Dawgs and Tigers put up last week in Death Valley, and we should see a much more physical brand of football. And the importance of this game can’t be understated.
“You can’t say the winner of this game is going to automatically win the SEC East,” Blackledge said. “But the winner will definitely have the early leg up.”
Georgia has won the SEC East twice in a row while losing to South Carolina both times.
For the Bulldogs, they need to establish themselves on the lines of scrimmage–something they’ve failed to do the last three years against the Gamecocks.
Oh yeah, and stopping some guy named Jadeveon Clowney.
Nessler mentioned that the Bulldogs should try set the tone early and “hit [Clowney] right under the chin on the first three plays.”
But Georgia “shouldn’t get tunnel vision. There are other guys to worry about.”
As for the Gamecocks, they can breathe a sigh of relief now that Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, and company are gone.
Connor Shaw will certainly try to cause the young defense problems with his mobility, which is something Todd Grantham’s units have struggled with in the past.
“[Shaw’s] got some good wheels,” said Nessler.
Dylan Thompson, who is more of a prototypical pocket passer, will also see game time for the Gamecocks.
When asked which player they thought would emerge as an unexpected play-maker in this game, both answers came from the Georgia offense.
Blackledge thinks we might see tailback Keith Marshall have a big night. Certainly, his home-run speed can change the game at any time, especially as a change-of-pace running back behind Todd Gurley, who has more of a bruising running style.
Nessler thinks tight end Artie Lynch has a chance to make a serious impact.
“He’s a stud, and South Carolina’s linebackers aren’t what they were last year. They’re very green,” Nessler said, who thinks Georgia didn’t utilize Lynch’s talents well enough last week.
And they both agree that this game can (and probably will) come down to turnovers and special teams, something which cost the Bulldogs dearly against Clemson.
Georgia will once again be without starting kicker Marshall Morgan, who is still serving a suspension for a B.U.I. (boating under the influence) this summer.
“They don’t have a lot of range [now],” said Nessler. “It forces them to do some things on semi-long fields [they wouldn’t otherwise do].”
Expect Mark Richt to go for more fourth downs in South Carolina territory (or rely on a pooch punt) rather than attempt long field goals.
The return game took a hit, too, with the loss of Malcolm Mitchell to a torn ACL.
Justin Scott-Wesley will be returning kicks for the Dawgs, and Rhett McGowan and/or Damian Swann will handle the punt returning duties.
And what about Aaron Murray getting that South Carolina monkey off his back?
“That stuff is so overblown,” said Blackledge, who is a former quarterback. “It’s not one-on-11. There’s 10 other guys on the field with him. It’s 11-on-11.”
The Gamecocks are already working on three straight wins over the Bulldogs, all with Murray under Georgia’s center. It’s their longest winning streak in the series ever, and they’ll be looking to extend it.
Georgia is looking to avoid another start like 2011, when they dropped an opening out-of-conference game to Boise State and followed it with a 45-42 loss to South Carolina in Athens.
They won the East that year, too.
We’ll see how it turns out tomorrow at 4:30 in Sanford Stadium.