Okay, I’m just gonna come right out and say it: I don’t feel good about this one.
Before I get to what’s got me uneasy, let me go through the list of what doesn’t bother me:
- Georgia offense vs. South Carolina defense. You know the one thing I don’t get in all the noise leading up to this game? Why so many people are completely dismissing Georgia’s ability to score on the Carolina D. It’s not that I’m saying 40+ points will happen. But that’s a long way from saying that it’s not a possibility. Lou Holtz (!) noted that there are only two teams in the country that have scored at least 40 points in every game they’ve played this season: Georgia and Oregon. If the Ducks were in Columbia, do you think everyone would have the same take on their scoring? Despite last year’s shitstorm of turnovers, Georgia still hung 42 on the ‘Cocks – and that team had Melvin Ingram in addition to Clowney and Taylor. Murray gashed that secondary worse than any other quarterback SC saw last season; the running game was credible as well. Georgia also scored easily three years ago, with Joe Cox at the helm. The last game in Columbia was a low scoring affair, true, but much of that was due to the straight jacket Richt elected to put Murray in because of his lack of experience. That’s not happening today. The South Carolina defense is formidable, particularly in the front seven, but it’s not shutting down the most explosive offense in the country. The Dawgs may not score 40, but they won’t struggle to get to 20, either.
- Intangibles. Hey, did you hear they’re fired up in Columbia? It’s sort of a big game. That being said, I don’t see where these favor either side. The stakes are basically the same – the loser’s out of the national title hunt and is also behind the eight ball in the SEC East race. As for the crowd, this isn’t Mark Richt’s first rodeo. He’s only lost once in Columbia. And we all know what Spurrier’s track record against Georgia is. I expect both teams will be ready to play.
- The South Carolina running game. The ‘Cocks are going to get some yardage on the ground. Marcus Lattimore is simply too good for that not to happen. But this isn’t going to be another Tennessee-like debacle on the part of Georgia’s defense. As Jody notes, Carolina’s threats on offense are about as different from the Vols as they can be: “Whereas UT had a big-armed QB, 2 future NFL WRs, a strong OL and very little on the ground, SC, well, doesn’t. At QB they have the effective Conner Shaw, although he’s more dangerous on the ground. At WR they don’t have the Alshon Jeffrey or Sydney Rice they’ve had in recent years. Their OL has struggled mightily at times this season, but they do have one of the top talents in college football in Marcus Lattimore.” Grantham is game planning for that. And it will have an effect. Of course, the risk he runs is that something else opens up. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
- The South Carolina secondary. It’s been banged up and Ward is still working to get the pieces operating in sync. And it hasn’t seen a passing attack like Georgia’s all season. The Dawgs are currently ranked second in passer rating. The most efficient passing attack the ‘Cocks have seen to date is Vanderbilt’s. It’s ranked sixty-third.
As for what has me queasy, well…
- The Georgia offensive line vs. the South Carolina defensive line. As improved as the Dawgs have looked in this department, it’s still an accident waiting to happen. Bobo and Murray are going to have to scheme like mad and be totally aware of space to have a chance to minimize the havoc Clowney and Taylor are capable of bringing. And the thing is that it doesn’t take too many times for that to break down to have a significant impact on the game’s outcome. I hate to say it, but I’m resigned to it happening.
- Special teams. Last year’s game, they were a killer. This year, they’ve been an adventure, to say the least. I expect that Richt is in full damage control mode – fair catch mode on punts fielded inside the 30, plenty of punt safe formations if it’s less than fourth-and-six and knees taken in the end zone regardless of how good the blocking sets up. Even then, he can’t control everything. Like PAT attempts. A miss or two tonight could be crucial.
- Field position. This is my biggest concern. And Richt going conservative on special teams plays right into my fear. If the Dawgs get pinned inside their twenty for a bunch of series, that will impact the offense. If I were Spurrier, I would be playing to control this – skip going for it on fourth down near midfield, be aggressive returning punts and kickoffs – to cut Georgia’s scoring chances. Tennessee’s crappy defense was able to hem Georgia’s offense in when the Dawgs went predictable. Imagine what that South Carolina defense can do with those same circumstances.
- Georgia’s defense. I understand why Georgia looked the way it did on defense last week, but I can’t excuse it. A team with that much talent shouldn’t be giving up that much yardage and that many points to a mediocre SEC team, turnovers and special teams snafus notwithstanding. The suspensions were survived without a loss, but it’s clear that a price has been paid in terms of cohesiveness. This group will improve with more game experience, no doubt, but there will be breakdowns this week. What’s worse, they’ll probably occur in the area that will be exposed somewhat by the game plan: the deep passing game. Shaw’s arm isn’t in the same class as Bray’s and his receivers aren’t nearly as good at Hunter and Patterson, but Shaw has shown that he can do some damage downfield if he has the time to set and throw. Expect the Dawgs to get burned on play action more than once. And watch for Lattimore on the wheel route.
On paper, Georgia’s the better team. On paper, I like Georgia to win. But I expect reality to go about as Josh Kendall describes it:
My official prediction such as it is, is that I think Georgia will win this game if it plays a clean game, but I don’t believe the Bulldogs will play a clean game because I haven’t seen them do it recently in a big game.
He’s right. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the gremlins trip the Dawgs up just enough to lose another close one.