5 things to know about No. 1 Georgia’s SEC opener vs. South Carolina

Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks intercepts a Spencer Rattler pass intended for South Carolina running back Juju McDowell and makes a long return setting up a Georgia scoring drive Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Columbia.   “Curtis Compton / AJC file"

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks intercepts a Spencer Rattler pass intended for South Carolina running back Juju McDowell and makes a long return setting up a Georgia scoring drive Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Columbia. “Curtis Compton / AJC file"

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs are going streaking.

It says so right there in the Bulldogs’ weekly notes. But this is not the kind of streaking Will Ferrell was calling for in the movie “Old School.” Their streaks are built on victory.

At the moment, there are a bunch of them, including:

  • With Saturday’s 45-3 win over Ball State, Georgia set a school record with 29 consecutive regular-season victories. That dates to a 31-24 win over Mississippi State on Nov. 21, 2020.
  • The Bulldogs also have won 19 regular-season SEC games in a row, which also goes back to that 2020 home game against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ record for consecutive regular-season SEC wins is 23, which was set from 1980-83. They would have to get through the Oct. 7 game against Kentucky unscathed to match that streak.
  • Georgia already has established a school record for overall wins in a row. That now stands at 19 games, dating to the 34-11 win over Michigan in the 2021 Orange Bowl. The previous record was 17, was established over the 1945-47 seasons.

The consensus is that the Bulldogs (2-0) will add to that total when South Carolina (1-1) visits Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) for both teams’ SEC opener. Georgia was posted as a 27.5-point favorite.

Here are five things to consider about the Saturday’s matchup:

Home sweet home

One of the current streaks that Georgia is most proud of is its home win streak. The Bulldogs have won 20 in a row at Sanford Stadium, which currently is the longest such streak in the nation.

Alabama previously had that mark at 21 games, but that ended with Saturday’s 34-24 loss to Texas.

The last time the Bulldogs lost between the hedges actually was against the school they will be hosting Saturday. Georgia was ranked No. 3 in the nation and was a three-touchdown favorite when South Carolina visited Oct. 12, 2019. The Gamecocks won 20-17 in a two-overtime stunner.

Coach Kirby Smart was asked this week if he reminded his team of that shocking upset.

“No,” he deadpanned. “I wouldn’t want to give B-Mac and Will the pleasure.”

Will Muschamp, now Georgia’s co-defensive coordinator, was then the Gamecocks’ head coach. Bulldogs wide receivers coach and passing-game coordinator Bryan McClendon was South Carolina’s offensive coordinator.

Missing parts

If Georgia’s home win streak is to continue, it likely will be accomplished without the services of star players Javon Bullard and Ladd McConkey.

The strong safety Bullard sustained a sprained ankle in the first quarter against Ball State and had to leave the game. Bullard had not practiced with the Bulldogs as of midweek, and his status for Saturday is doubtful. Bullard, who earned defensive MVP honors in both playoff games last season while playing nickel back for the Bulldogs, will return soon, whether he plays Saturday.

McConkey’s situation is much more worrisome. A junior flanker who was Georgia’s second-leading receiver behind Brock Bowers last season, McConkey has been unable to play all season because of a chronic and unpredictable back issue. Trainer Ron Courson and the Bulldogs’ considerable sports-medicine staff have been unable to solve it. McConkey is not expected to play against the Gamecocks.

The good news is that both players’ replacements have been solid. In Bullard’s spot, the Bulldogs are able to turn to veteran Dan Jackson, a five-game starter who has played in 22 games the past two seasons, even while missing the second half of last season with a broken foot. Also logging a lot of snaps at safety this season are junior David Daniel-Sisavanh and sophomore JaCorey Thomas.

McConkey’s snaps at flanker this season have been absorbed mostly by junior Arian Smith. A former track star and the unquestioned fastest player on the team, Smith has two catches for 50 yards so far. Redshirt freshman C.J. Smith also has recorded three catches for 73 yards out of that spot.

Georgia likely will continue to be without defensive end Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins (foot), a South Carolina native. Running back Daijun Edwards (knee) and offensive tackle Austin Blaske (knee) are expected to return.

Fear the Rattler

There might not be a quarterback in the country who is playing better than South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, and his strong play dates to last season.

Rattler has completed 83% of his passes for 698 yards and three touchdowns this season. Including the final three games of last season, he is 139-of-188 (73.9%) for 1,742 yards and 13 touchdowns with three interceptions.

In Saturday’s game against Furman, Rattler completed 25 of 27 passes for 345 yards and three scores. That was the second-highest completion percentage in a game with that many passes in FBS history. Only Georgia’s Greyson Lambert – who completed 24 of 25 against South Carolina in 2015, has done better.

The issue for the Gamecocks has been protecting their prized quarterback. Rattler has been sacked 10 times, including nine in the season-opening loss against North Carolina.

“We’ve got to make him uncomfortable in the pocket, get him off his landmarks,” Georgia linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson said.

That certainly worked last year. The Bulldogs didn’t sack him, but they pressured him plenty. Then a first-year transfer from Oklahoma, Rattler finished was 19-of-34 passing for 214 yards and threw three interceptions.

‘Beamer Ball’ alive

As always, Georgia seeks to win all three facets of the game, offense, defense and special teams. But it’s in the latter area – special teams – that the Bulldogs may face the greatest challenge.

South Carolina coach Shane Beamer clearly has adopted the affinity for special teams that his father, Frank Beamer, became famous for at Virginia Tech. “Beamer Ball” appears to be alive and well at South Carolina.

Last year, the Gamecocks blocked six kicks – five punts and a field-goal attempt – and scored five special-teams TDs. They also excel in the area of fake kicks and onside kicks.

Based on the combination of all those metrics, South Carolina ranked No. 1 in FBS last season.

“It’s something they do a really, really good job of,” Smart said. “I know (Beamer is) very hands on with that, he’s passionate about it. It creates an identity for his players and you can see that.”

One of the Gamecocks’ best weapons is All-American punter Kai Kroeger, who averaged 46.1 yards a punt a year ago and is an ever-present threat to run or pass on a fake. Georgia will counter with the SEC’s best punt-return game, led by sophomore Mekhi Mews. Mews is averaging 26 yards per return after returning one 69 yards for a touchdown against Ball State.

“You’re looking for momentum plays in those units,” Smart said.

Offensive jump-start

Georgia’s offense will be looking for two things Saturday: One, to get off to a quicker start, and two, to generate a more dominant ground game.

The Bulldogs scored only seven points combined in the first quarter of their first two games against Tennessee-Martin and Ball State. However, they’ve seemed to get things rolling in the second quarter, outscoring those opponents 41-0.

Of course, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter when you score, as long as you’re scoring. The Bulldogs are doing a good job of that. Their 46.5 points per game ranks 14th nationally.

It’s in the area of running the football where Georgia appears deficient compared with last season. The Bulldogs averaged 205.3 yards rushing per game when they went 15-0. They’re averaging only 129 per game through the first two games, which ranks 10th in the SEC. Freshman Roderick Robinson II is the team’s leading rusher, with an average of only 44 yards per game.

About the Author