5 things to know about Georgia-South Carolina

ATHENS — No. 1 Georgia will put its record and ranking on the line Saturday when it travels to Columbia, S.C., to take on South Carolina in the Bulldogs’ SEC opener.

Over the years, the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC) tend to play some of their better games when the Bulldogs visit Williams-Brice Stadium, especially when they’re highly ranked. This year’s game is the 20th anniversary of David Pollack’s snatch-and-grab touchdown in Columbia. The Gamecocks went 5-7 that season, while the Bulldogs would win the SEC championship and go 13-1.

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Georgia arrives this year as a 24-point favorite. That was the same line by which Georgia, then ranked No. 3, was favored when South Carolina last beat the Bulldogs, in 2019 in Athens.

Here are five storylines for Saturday’s matchup:

1. Test for young DBs

Georgia’s secondary features three first-year starters and five freshmen in the two-deep. While South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler probably is not licking his chops, considering the Bulldogs’ overall defensive prowess so far, offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield is definitely in the meeting room telling him that there should be explosive-play opportunities in the passing game.

Rattler, a first-year transfer from Oklahoma and former five-star recruit, passed for 376 yards in a loss at Arkansas last week. In that game, he hooked up with Antwane “Juice” Wells, the SEC’s leading receiver with 244 yards, for a 64-yard touchdown. The Gamecocks have several other receivers who are known for getting open deep. Jalen Brooks is averaging 19.5 yards per catch and Josh Vann victimized the Bulldogs for 128 yards on three catches a year ago, including a 61-yard touchdown.

“They have some really big wideouts and some challenging guys to cover,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We will have to play well.”

Smart emphasized that goes for the Bulldogs’ front seven as well as the back third. Rattler has been sacked eight times in the Gamecocks’ first two games, and that has contributed to a modest 61% completion rate and his two touchdowns to three interceptions. But one of Rattler’s greatest attributes is being able to throw the football deep. You can be sure he’ll take some shots.

“As far as Spencer Rattler, we all know he’s a great quarterback,” sophomore nickel back and first-year starter Javon Bullard said. “But we’re going to do the things we need to get done on the defensive side of the ball.”

2. New identity

Georgia will bring a very different offense than the last time it visited Columbia. When the Bulldogs last played in Williams-Brice Stadium, on Nov. 28, 2020, they ran the ball down the throats of the Gamecocks. James Cook ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns, and Georgia piled up 332 yards rushing in a 45-16 victory.

The Bulldogs ran the football 46 times at an average of 7.21 yards per pop that afternoon. Georgia has rushed the football only 57 times in two games so far this season, at 4.5 yards per carry. The Bulldogs averaged only 4.0 yards per carry Saturday against a Samford team that was severely undersized in comparison.

Georgia’s lack of ground game is a kind of double-edged sword. On one hand, the Bulldogs simply aren’t emphasizing as much a traditional rushing attack. On the other, Georgia is choosing to utilize quarterback Stetson Bennett more as a ball distributor who is getting the ball to the Bulldogs’ backs via screens, swings and wheel routes.

“Right now, the strength of this team is probably the depth up front, the experience at quarterback and the distribution of the ball to be able to make you defend 53 yards,” Smart said, referring to the width of a football field.

That said, there remain times Georgia just needs to power the football between the tackles. It was not very proficient in that regard last week. The Bulldogs had to settle for four chip-shot field goals and went 3-for-8 on red-zone touchdown opportunities against Samford.

“It wasn’t up to our standard,” sophomore center Sedrick Van Pran said. “But we know what we need to do better. They were some small, minute things that can be fixed easily.”

3. Stetson Bennett on target

How different is Georgia’s offense so far? Well, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in passing. Led by Bennett’s 334 yards per game, they are averaging 395.5 yards per contest. That leads even pass-happy Mississippi State by 10 yards per game.

Bennett is doing that by completing high-percentage passes at a 75.4% rate. If he keeps up the pace, he could become the first Georgia player to lead the SEC in passing since Aaron Murray in 2012. Murray was the first SEC player to throw for more than 3,000 yards in all four seasons that he played. He graduated as the SEC’s all-time passing leader with 13,166 yards and 121 touchdowns.

Bennett broke Murray’s school record for pass efficiency over a season with a 176.7. He’s operating at a 176.9 clip so far this season as Georgia is relying more on the sixth-year senior to make run-pass decisions.

“He’s gained more confidence,” Smart said. “Obviously, when you play in the series of games he played in the playoffs, there is experience grown from that. And then it’s taking the thousands of reps he’s taken since then with the (first team). That allows for growth.”

4. Noisy venue

South Carolina does not always field one of the best teams in the SEC, but Williams-Brice Stadium remains one of the louder, more rowdy stadiums for visitors to play in. That’s especially true early in the season when the Gamecocks still believe they have achievable goals.

The Bulldogs have suffered some of their most agonizing upset defeats in the 77,000-seat, 88-year-old facility.

“Loud,” Smart said of playing there. “It’s one of the league’s most impressive stadiums. It seems so vertical, and they get after it when ‘Sandstorm’ starts playing and their fans get into it. It’s hard to differentiate because all SEC stadiums are loud and they’re passionate. It just means more in the SEC, and that definitely carries over to Williams-Brice.”

Georgia has been preparing for Saturday’s game by blaring “Sandstorm” and recorded crowd noise over loudspeakers outside and in the Payne Indoor Center. The Bulldogs have been working on getting their offensive and defensive calls via hand signals.

“They can cause some problems, being in those environments,” Van Pran said. “But, honestly, that’s something that we work on that we practice throughout the week. We try to minimize those things.”

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5. Injuries mount

Increasingly, it looks like Georgia is going to be without one of its top receivers. Adonai “A.D.” Mitchell, star of the Bulldogs’ national championship win over Alabama, suffered an ankle sprain in the first quarter against Samford on Saturday and has been unable to practice all week. Cornerback Nyland Green also remains sidelined.

“Both those guys are doubtful right now,” Smart said Wednesday. “No determination has been made.”

The Bulldogs will get no sympathy from South Carolina. The Gamecocks lost defensive starters Mo Kaba and Jordan Strachan to season-ending ACL injuries against Arkansas on Saturday. Defensive backs Cam Smith and David Spaulding are questionable heading into this game.