ATHENS — There will be a lot of familiarity on both sides of the field Saturday when the South Carolina Gamecocks visit Georgia’s Sanford Stadium.
Shane Beamer, the Gamecocks new coach, was an assistant coach on Kirby Smart’s first two staffs at Georgia. Bulldogs assistant coach Will Muschamp was South Carolina’s head coach up until last year.
Meanwhile, Zeb Noland, the Gamecocks’ quarterback, grew up just 10 miles from Sanford Stadium. He starred at Oconee County High School, where his father, Travis Noland, remains the head coach.
So, there won’t be many unknowns for either side when ESPN shows up to televise Saturday night’s 7 o’clock game.
“I’ve been in there with multiple teams, but certainly this is my first time going in there as the head coach at South Carolina and my first time after I had coached at Georgia,” said Beamer, who holds a Sunday night teleconference every week. “There’s some great memories, but certainly we have a job to do.”
Indeed, Beamer has been to Sanford Stadium more times with other teams than with the Bulldogs. He visited as a graduate assistant for Georgia Tech and Tennessee from 2000-03 and came as a running backs coach for Mississippi State in 2006. He was a defensive coach for Steve Spurrier when the Gamecocks upset Georgia 16-12 in Athens in 2007 and when they pushed them to the brink in 2009 before falling 41-37.
Smart brought in Beamer from Virginia Tech as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator in January of 2016 when Smart became Georgia’s head coach. Beamer left Georgia to join Lincoln Riley’s staff at Oklahoma in 2017, shortly after the Bulldogs edged the Sooners in the Rose Bowl.
This will be the first time back to Athens for Beamer, his wife, Emily, and their three children since then.
“I hope we’ll be able to enjoy a little bit of it,” Beamer said. “It’s a really good team we’re playing. But certainly it’s special for me. Sanford Stadium and Athens is one of the best environments and best college towns in the country. My family and I absolutely loved the two years we had there. We’ve got a lot of friends over there still within the program and without the program. I’ve gotten text messages from a bunch of them. Some of the players on that team I recruited and sat in their living rooms. So, there’s that part of it.”
Then there’s the football part of it. That’s going to a colossal challenge for Beamer and the Gamecocks.
South Carolina (2-0) opened as a 32-point underdog to the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (2-0). At present, the Gamecocks are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Georgia when it comes to the state of the football programs.
Beamer inherited a major rebuilding job from Will Muschamp. Muschamp was fired as South Carolina’s head coach last November with three games still remaining in the season. Beamer was hired almost a month later. So, there has been some roster attrition and recruiting consequences during the transition.
But Beamer hit the ground running and the Gamecocks have taken care of business so far. Despite losing starting quarterback Luke Doty to an injury in preseason camp, South Carolina defeated Eastern Illinois 46-0 in Beamer’s head coaching debut Sept. 4, then came from behind to defeat East Carolina 20-17 Saturday in Greenville, N.C.
None of that compares to the challenge before Beamer and South Carolina this week.
“They’re really, really, really, really good,” Beamer said of the Bulldogs. “… I know how talented they are. And I know how (Smart) runs that program. No one in that facility is ever allowed to get comfortable, meaning coaches and players. They’re not sitting around patting themselves on the back about their 2-0 start and what they’ve done. They’re in there doing everything in their power to get better this week. That’s why they’re consistently good. We know they’ll be better Saturday night against us than they were last week against UAB and probably the week before against Clemson.”
As for the Muschamp factor, Beamer doesn’t think it will really be one.
“That’s no disrespect to Will,” Beamer said. “None of the schemes are alike, what we’re doing here compared to last year. He’s obviously going to know personnel, about certain guys, offense, defense and special teams. … He’s got more of a familiarity with South Carolina’s team than I do Georgia. But there are some guys on Georgia’s team that were there when I was there.”
That would include quarterback Stetson Bennett. Bennett was the Bulldogs’ scout-team quarterback while Beamer was coaching tight ends in Athens. Now a redshirt senior, Bennett threw for 288 yards and five touchdowns while filling in for an injured JT Daniels against UAB.
The biggest mystery for the Bulldogs this week is whether they will stick with Bennett or Daniels will return from injury and be reinstated as the starter.
Beamer says the Gamecocks aren’t overly concerned about it.
“Stetson is a heckuva competitor and a heckuva player and clearly Kirby has a ton of confidence in him to get the job done, just the fact that he put him out there (Saturday) over the other quarterbacks that they have in that program,” Beamer said. “That tells you everything you need to know about how Kirby feels about Stetson. So it really doesn’t change our preparation at all. It’s going to be a fantastic quarterback that they put out there.”
Regardless of the stakes or the outcome, Beamer said he and his family are looking forward to being back between the hedges.
“It’s a great environment play in,” he said. “It will be rocking in there on Saturday night and we’ve got to have a great week of preparation to make sure we can enjoy parts of it.”
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