Has UGA gotten too much credit for beating Clemson?

Georgia had just opened its season by beating Clemson badly. Vince Dooley stood in the back of the interview room awaiting Mark Richt’s appearance. I said to Dooley: “This must have been the way it was when you had Herschel.”

Dooley didn’t smile at the memory. On the contrary, he winced. “The thing about opening games,” he said, “is that you never know how good the other team is.”

That bit of Dooley wisdom was imparted Aug. 30, 2003. Georgia had trampled the Tigers 30-0 in Death Valley. That comprehensive victory yielded a poll bounce: The Bulldogs moved from No. 11 in the preseason Associated Press poll to No. 8.

Eleven years to the day later, Georgia trounced Clemson in another opener, and its bounce would become a mighty bound. The Bulldogs jumped from No. 12 to No. 6 in the AP poll, and that wasn’t the half of it. Kirk Herbstreit, the self-appointed conscience of college football, ranked them No. 1 in the land; so did Gene Wojciechowski, likewise of ESPN. This week Bovada, a Las Vegas sports book, named Georgia tailback Todd Gurley the new Heisman Trophy favorite.

We pause to note the following: Georgia beat Clemson 45-21 in Sanford Stadium; the Bulldogs were favored by slightly more than a touchdown; having trailed in the first half and been tied at halftime, their lead was 24-21 with 11 minutes remaining. As powerful as its closing kick was, Georgia essentially won a home game it was expected it to win.

It beat Clemson, a program given to wild mood swings. True, the Tigers defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl in January and Georgia 38-35 in last season’s opener. This is also the Clemson that yielded 70 points to West Virginia in another Orange Bowl, that lost 51-14 at home to Florida State last season and has lost five in a row to South Carolina. And the 2014 Tigers were without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, two of the best players in school annals.

Back to Dooley’s decade-old point: Since we don’t know how good Clemson is — it beat South Carolina State 73-7 last weekend — and since we’re predisposed to be leery of the Tigers anyway, have we gone too gaga over Georgia? Is this rush to crown the Bulldogs the new favorites for everything short of the Stanley Cup a reflection of reality or a frothing example of too much too soon?

Georgia plays Saturday at South Carolina, which was tabbed at SEC Media Days to win the East but lost its opener at home to reconfigured Texas A&M by the astonishing score of 52-28. In preseason, the Bulldogs figured to be a 3-point underdog entering Williams-Brice Stadium. They’re favored by 6 1/2. Two 24-point opening games — South Carolina’s loss and Georgia’s win — have swung the line that much.

Eight of eight surveyed SI.com writers pick Georgia to beat South Carolina; six of ESPN’s seven SEC correspondents do. Phil Steele, who in his idiosyncratic yearbook named the Bulldogs his top surprise team, projects them to win 34-24. If that’s not a groundswell, then I’m not Carl Spackler, assistant groundskeeper.

But is it justified? When last the Bulldogs visited Columbia, S.C., they lost 35-7. Even when they’ve won there, they’ve had to bust a gut. The 2002 SEC champs-to-be needed David Pollack’s snatch-and-score to prevail 13-7. The 2004 Bulldogs, ranked No. 3 nationally, trailed 16-0 before rallying. The team that entered 2008 ranked No. 1 won 14-7 in a game in doubt until the final three seconds..

South Carolina already is in desperation mode. If it loses to Georgia, it cannot realistically win the SEC East. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have been hunkered down in Athens for two weeks hearing hosannas to their greatness. If Dooley were still coaching the Bulldogs, these dynamics would have him tearing out his hair

Maybe the Bulldogs really are great. Maybe this really is their year. But no one should fall into the trap of thinking their second game will be as easy as their second half against Clemson. Steve Spurrier still coaches South Carolina. He didn’t become the Evil Genius by being mistaken for Dabo Swinney.

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