It’s finally here.
It wasn’t easy over the weekend for Georgia or South Carolina, but the SEC East’s two highest-ranked teams remained unbeaten to set up Saturday’s battle royale in Columbia, a game that has large implications every season in the race for the Eastern Division title.
This matchup has all the trappings indicative of midseason games that mean something in the SEC — a prolific offense against a great defense, two All-American candidates for both teams on opposite sides of the ball and College GameDay lifting the hype meter.
Let’s take a look at both teams before breaking down this game’s importance later this week:
RECENT HISTORY: Considered the East’s second-best rivalry in recent years after Georgia-Florida, the Gamecocks have beaten the Bulldogs back-to-back years after Georgia won six of the previous seven head-to-head matchups. South Carolina junior running back Marcus Lattimore is averaging 179 yards per game career against Georgia. Over the last decade, seven games in this series have been decided by a touchdown or less.
OFFENSE: Remember Isaiah Crowell, the SEC’s freshman of the year last season? He’s long forgotten in Athens due to a pair of dominant freshman running backs who have been tearing up defenses this season for the Bulldogs. Comically titled “Gurshall”, the tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have obliterated the competition in their first five college games, rushing for a combined 964 yards and 14 touchdowns. Thunder and Lightning wouldn’t accurately describe these two since both possess tremendous speed and power. Gurley’s a little bigger at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, but that doesn’t limit his breakaway ability. We haven’t even mentioned Aaron Murray, a prolific pocket passer with 12 touchdowns this season. Georgia has scored 40 more points in every game this season, averaging an SEC-best 48.2 points per contest.
On offense, it all starts with Lattimore for South Carolina. Simply put, the Gamecocks win when Lattimore rushes for more than 100 yards. Currently, Connor Shaw is the SEC’s most accurate quarterback with a 78.1 completion percentage and makes plays on the move when South Carolina needs a first down. Shaw’s 35 for his last 39 for 397 yards and four touchdowns. The Gamecocks have scored 30 or more in four straight games for the first time since 1987, but are still searching for their identity with an offense that occasionally struggles with consistency, especially in goal line situations. When the Gamecocks needed it most, though, the offense moved the football and scored touchdowns on four straight possessions at Kentucky to run away from the Wildcats.
Edge – Georgia
DEFENSE: Any way you crack it, Georgia’s star-studded unit has simply under-performed this season and reached its low point against Tennessee over the weekend. In that game, the Vols scored 20 unanswered points in the second quarter
to lead at halftime and finished with nearly 500 yards of total offense, exposing a rush-challenged front seven. It was difficult to notice the return of Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree to the UGA defense since the Bulldogs were gashed at the line of scrimmage to the tune of 197 yards rushing and missed several sure tackles on the outside. Georgia did however force three turnovers in the final six minutes that clinched the win and sent 92,000-strong home happy.
Considered among the best in the country prior to the season, South Carolina’s defensive line has proved its worth through five games. The Gamecocks rank second in all of college football with 22 sacks and 13th in total defense at 288 yards per game. South Carolina has given up five touchdowns all season, tied with Alabama for the best mark in the SEC. In the second half of last week’s game at Kentucky, the Gamecocks held the Wildcats to four first downs and didn’t allow a point after trailing by 10 points in the second quarter. South Carolina’s rush defense is the SEC’s best at 77.6 yards per game. Jadeveon Clowney is this unit’s Heisman candidate should South Carolina continue winning.
Edge – South Carolina
SPECIAL TEAMS: Both Georgia and South Carolina rank near the bottom of the FBS ranks in net punting, coming in at Nos. 105 and 112, respectively. Bulldogs kicker Marshall Morgan has made 4-of-5 field goals this season and 27-of-30 extra points. South Carolina’s Adam Yates has nailed 3-of-4 field goals and hasn’t tried one longer than 38 yards. When the Gamecocks have the ball in Georgia territory, Steve Spurrier will likely go for it.
Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington are two weapons in the return game for South Carolina, speedy wide receivers that also play on special teams. Sanders has one career punt return touchdown, but made his presence felt this season against Missouri with a game-changing 48-yard return inside the Tiger 5. Ellington countered with a 50-yard kickoff return just before halftime that set up an eventual touchdown pass from Shaw to Sanders two plays later. Only 15 of the Gamecocks’ 33 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks and the punting game has been dreadful this season. South Carolina has only returned three kickoffs, but averages 27 yards per return.
Edge – Even.