ATHENS – The Georgia Bulldogs – and especially their fans – are walking around loud and proud with their 2-0 record, No. 2 national ranking and status as a 30.5-point favorite over South Carolina for Saturday night’s game at Sanford Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN).
But it’s not like it is ancient history when the Bulldogs took an extra large bite of humble pie in a hauntingly similar scenario against South Carolina.
In October 2019, No. 3-ranked Georgia was 5-0 and installed as a 21.5-point favorite against a Gamecocks team that came in 3-3. Like this year, those Bulldogs were defensive stalwarts, having not allowed a rushing touchdown coming in. Georgia won its first five contests by an average of 32 points.
But everything broke South Carolina’s way that Saturday. Georgia committed four turnovers, had a field-goal try blocked in regulation and missed another one in the second of two overtimes as it fell – hard -- 20-17.
“Humility is always a week away,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said this week.
The hope, as always, is that it is not this week.
It would be a colossal upset for the Bulldogs to go down. Under Smart, they were a 30-point favorite over Tennessee in 2018 and favored by 29 points over Missouri in 2017. Georgia won by 26 and 39 points, respectively.
Five other things to consider before Saturday’s game:
For the second consecutive week, there is quarterback uncertainty for the Bulldogs. There is considerably less angst this time around, however, as senior Stetson Bennett proved last week he is more than capable to take over the controls of Georgia’s offense when the need arises.
Bennett was tabbed to start against Alabama-Birmingham a week ago after JT Daniels was scratched midweek with an oblique strain. Bennett responded by throwing five touchdown passes averaging 48.8 yards each – all in the first half -- as the Bulldogs jetted to a 35-0 lead. They finalized a 56-7 victory with backups on the field.
That firmly established Bennett’s identity as QB2 over redshirt freshman Carson Beck, at least for now. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Beck was 4-for-10 passing for 88 yards and threw an interception that was returned 61 yards for a touchdown.
As for this week, Daniels’ health was described as “improved.” But, as usual, Smart did not designate a starter by the time he went to radio silence Thursday.
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s quarterback situation is equally murky. Graduate Zeb Noland started the first two games while sophomore Luke Doty remained sidelined with a foot injury. Coach Shane Beamer declared Doty “100% healthy” after he returned to practice this week, but he also has declined to declare a starter before Saturday.
Defending their turf
Georgia’s defense probably is not sweating the Gamecocks’ quarterback decision. The Bulldogs basically have made mincemeat of whatever quarterback they’ve faced so far.
They have 10 quarterback sacks, 34 pressures, four interceptions and two touchdown returns in the first two games. Thus, Georgia’s defense has outscored opposing offenses 14-3 so far this season.
The Bulldogs have been able to do that with a formidable front seven led by 6-foot-6, 330-pound nose guard Jordan Davis. But don’t go to sleep on Georgia’s rebuilt secondary. South Carolina’s Noland raved about the play of junior safety Lewis Cine, who leads the Bulldogs with 11 tackles and also has an interception and two pass break-ups to his credit.
“Everybody talks about their front and obviously they’re phenomenal,” Noland said this week. “But, personally, I give No. 16 (Cine) a lot of credit. He started last year, he flies around to the ball, he gets people lined up, he plays hard, plays with an edge, never gets stupid penalties. I tell you, I’ve got as much respect for that guy as anybody I’ve played against, and I’m gonna tell him that after the game.”
For a school known as RBU, Georgia hasn’t looked like it so far.
The Bulldogs enter Sanford Stadium on Saturday averaging 142 yards rushing in the first two games, with featured back Zamir White leading the way with only 54 yards per contest. James Cook has Georgia’s only rushing touchdown so far and the long run from scrimmage is 22 yards.
“Yeah, we’ve got to do it better,” Smart said. “We may not have a back go over 100 because we split them up and share it out. But, certainly, we should have more than we have had. We’ve got to create run game.”
The Gamecocks are a tough outfit to run against. They’re giving up only 77 yards a game, 2.37 yards per carry and have allowed just one rushing score.
Meanwhile, South Carolina comes to Athens with a backfield that can rival Georgia’s. Kevin Harris, who led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,138 yards, returned last week after missing all of preseason camp and the first game with a back injury. Meanwhile, ZaQuandre White and Juju McDowell have been good for 249 yards in the first two games.
Will Muschamp factor
Both Beamer and Smart have downplayed the impact that Georgia assistant coach Will Muschamp might have on Saturday’s game. But it probably shouldn’t be discounted.
Never mind that Muschamp was coaching the Gamecocks just 10 months ago or that he’s technically the special-teams coordinator. Muschamp’s college coaching career spans more than two decades, with head coaching stops at Florida and South Carolina. His reputation was built as a defensive coordinator and secondary coach.
It’s in the latter area where Muschamp’s presence has been most felt by the Bulldogs.
“He’s been an extra set of eyes in the defensive backfield,” Smart said before the season started. “We’ve been able to break things down. You know, there are a lot of parts to the secondary, and when you’ve got new parts in all those parts, it helps to have an extra set of eyes. He’s been tremendous at that.”
Georgia’s special teams have benefited as well. With exception of Jack Podlesny’s missed field-goal attempts, the Bulldogs have been among the SEC’s best in returns and kick coverage.
Georgia will honor “The Five” on Saturday.
That’s what the Bulldogs have come to call the five men who integrated the UGA football program in 1971. This year is the 50th anniversary of Richard Appleby, Chuck Kinnebrew, Horace King, Clarence Pope and Larry West enrolling at Georgia. Now in their late 60s, all of them graduated from Georgia and will be in attendance Saturday.
The group, along with coach Vince Dooley, will be recognized in pregame ceremonies. Also, UGA will unveil a monument on Reed Plaza that will commemorate the milestone achievement.