Editor’s note: South Carolina reporter Keith Farner and Georgia reporter Tom Brew recently exchanged a series of emails discussing Saturday’s Georgia-South Carolina game, the rivalry’s history, key matchups and who wins. That conversation has been published here.
Keith Farner: One of the more interesting matchups I see in the game is South Carolina’s veteran wide receivers against the youngsters in the Georgia secondary, namely freshman Tyson Campbell and sophomore Richard Lecounte. Sure, they are two of Kirby Smart’s key blue-chip recruits, but I wonder if they are ready for a huge road SEC game, particularly this early in the season. We don’t usually see huge showdowns on Sept. 8.
Conversely, there’s a freshman on the South Carolina side in Jaycee Horn who, like Campbell, earned his first start last week. How exposed will the freshmen be? The difference, I think, is that Georgia was without Terry Godwin last week, he’s trying to come back from a lingering knee injury, and the Bulldogs have yet to establish a go-to replacement for Javon Wims. Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman are capable, but still leave something to be desired as go-to options. I understand Hardman had three catches for 41 yards and a touchdown against South Carolina last year. Ridley, for example, had one catch for 7 yards. I think Horn can keep up with those guys just fine.
Tom Brew: It’s good you brought this up first, because there are very few questions with this Georgia team, but the secondary is certainly one of them. I’m on record as predicting Georgia to go 12-0 in the regular season for the first time ever, but I also voiced concerns about September road games against veteran quarterbacks and receivers, both here and in two weeks at Missouri. There’s no question this secondary will get tested, but what we’ve learned in fall camp is that Tyson Campbell is an incredible athlete with very instinctive ball skills. I do think he’s ready for a big-time challenge like this. And, of course, a secondary’s best friend is a good pass rush. If the Dawgs can keep the heat on South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley on the pocket, that will help.
I think you are vastly underestimating the big-play ability of the Georgia receivers. I know it was just Austin Peay, but Hardman (below) is very dangerous out of the slot. He runs great routes and is really good at finding open spaces. And once he gets the ball in his hands, watch out. He broke one for 59 yards last week and it was impressive. And remember this name: Demetris Robertson. The Cal transfer, a former freshman All-American from Savannah, is still trying to get up to speed with the playbook and his own conditioning, but the man can fly. He took a jet sweep 72 yards to the end zone last week and wasn’t even touched. Yeah, I know, Austin Peay, but still, the talent is there. I’m not worried about the Georgia receivers making plays this Saturday at all.
Farner: There are areas where I think there’s a push, such as kicking and punting, where each team has the better player. Quarterbacks are pretty similar, in talent and leadership, and while Jake Fromm has played on bigger stages, I think Jake Bentley is capable of delivering an upset.
Brew: The thing about Bentley is that he’s been through this before, and experience is huge in a game like this. I don’t think he’ll get rattled and he will make some plays. But he might have to score 28 to win, and I just don’t know if he can do that against this Georgia defense.
Return of key South Carolina players missing last year
Farner: The other element that is interesting in this game is the number of key players South Carolina missed from last year’s game who are back this week. Among them, Deebo Samuel (below), Rico Dowdle and Bryson Allen-Williams, who by most observers would be three of the top five or 10 players on the South Carolina roster.
Brew: Yes, I agree with you. I’m not putting much stock in last year’s game, either. Personally, I do think South Carolina is the second-best team in the SEC East and if someone is going to beat Georgia within the division, I think the Gamecocks have the best chance of doing that. With Samuel, Dowdle and Allen-Williams healthy, it definitely closes the talent gap a little bit. But come on, there’s still a gap.
Farner: For comparisons, I would look to the 2014 game, also in Columbia and I believe also on CBS. That was a top-10 Georgia team and it got upset by a top-25 South Carolina team. There seems to be some similarities there to this week.
Brew: I guess you can compare this to 2014, but you won’t get me to believe you. To me, that Georgia team had some holes and wasn’t really a top-10 team in my book. This team is far better, especially along the line of scrimmage.
Farner: Home-field advantage is one of the bigger keys South Carolina holds. The home team has won five of six in this series and Georgia is only 5-4 in its last nine games in Columbia. The heat and humidity will be a factor and Will Muschamp noted last week that none of his players needed an IV. There have been plenty of games in the last decade — and the 2010 upset of Alabama stands out the most — where the stadium and crowd played a factor. Georgia won’t have the luxury of having a good portion of the crowd like it did multiple times last year, such as at Notre Dame and in Jacksonville against Florida. There is a true home-field advantage here on Saturday.
Brew: I just don’t think statistics mean all that much when you’re going back 18-20 years because this Georgia team is much better than almost all of its predecessors. They have more 5-stars than ever before and, of course, the anti-Mark Richt portion of the fan base will tell you that they are getting coached-up must better now, too.
I don’t think the heat, even at a 3:30 p.m. ET game, gives South Carolina any edge. It’s been just as brutal in Athens all summer. Quite frankly, I think it might give Georgia an edge because the Bulldogs are deeper, especially along the defensive line.
Crowd noise? I’ll give you that. It’s going to be loud. But I also think Jake Fromm has heard it all before. A year’s experience means a lot in hostile situations like this. I think he’ll be fine.
What if South Carolina trails early?
Farner: If South Carolina trails early, I like the big-play ability from Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, and Rico Dowdle has shown ability in the passing game. With all the attention on the outside, look for K.C. Crosby to make a play. He’s not as talented as Hayden Hurst or the Georgia tight ends, but he’s capable of a contribution. The Georgia punt unit is another that’s unproven after some departures from last year’s unit.
Brew: Yes, I agree with you there that South Carolina has enough weapons everywhere. As I said before, Bentley is the key. He has to provide veteran leadership and be that quarterback who makes all the right decisions. If he does, he’ll move the ball.
Muschamp’s desire to keep South Carolina in the SEC East mix
Farner: Muschamp understands this game is vital because it’s at home and they have difficult road games down the stretch at Ole Miss, Florida and Clemson.
Brew: Sure it’s vital, because South Carolina has been talking all summer that they feel like they can contend for an SEC East title this year. Beating Georgia goes a long way toward reaching that goal.
Farner: As for the pass rushes, D.J. Wonnum, who had six sacks last year, is a key player for the Gamecocks, though he has been in a walking boot this week. That will be a matchup to watch against Georgia’s huge — but somewhat unproven — offensive line. Remember, the Bulldogs didn’t get it set last year until the Auburn game when Ben Cleveland was inserted at guard. Like a lot of Georgia positions, there’s a lot of talent, but not much experience with things like crowd noise. Georgia last season got most of its pass rush and sacks from linebackers Roquan Smith and D’Andre Walker. Is there a Georgia defensive lineman capable of more than the 2.5 sacks Jonathan Ledbetter had last season?
Brew: I guess that’s one plus of playing this game so early, because the Bulldogs are pretty healthy. Terry Godwin is the only unsure piece. He’s been back at practice this week, but Kirby Smart said he’s not getting on the bus if he can’t play. My guess is he’ll be there, but I really like their depth at wide receiver anyway. Even if he can’t go, there are guys ready to step up.
Farner: South Carolina 35, Georgia 31. If Bentley doesn’t have a career game, South Carolina will score that many by either a Deebo Samuel special-teams touchdown, or a defensive touchdown. I like South Carolina getting more pressure on Fromm than Georgia will on Bentley, who has shown ability to scramble out of trouble.
Brew: Georgia 27, South Carolina 20. I just can’t see South Carolina scoring that many points. Georgia’s defense is better than that. It’ll be a battle and still close at halftime, but I think Georgia wins, 27-20. And that will be the last SEC East game South Carolina loses all season.