Georgia handles Gamecocks, keeps pace with Bama

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Georgia quarterback JT Daniels passes against South Carolina. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There are two things to watch for in a game like this. You want to see how Georgia looked while winning against South Carolina. You also keep an eye on the other College Football Playoff contenders. After doing both Saturday, I still see No. 2 Georgia as the top challenger to Alabama.

There were sloppy moments for Georgia against South Carolina at Sanford Stadium. But the spirit was good even when the execution wasn’t. The Bulldogs dominated South Carolina like they should. There was little indication that they’ve gotten too big for their britches.

Georgia 40, South Carolina 13

Before the season, the CFP odds pecking order was Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma. The Crimson Tide remained on top Saturday by surviving in The Swamp. Georgia is just behind. Florida made a case to be up there. There’s gap to the other contenders.

“It’s a weird year,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Not necessarily the Clemson (vs. Georgia Tech) score or Alabama — playing at Florida is a tough place to play — but ... upsets seem to be more prevalent. We’re not immune to that.

“We are trying to heighten our awareness to the standard. ‘Hey, can we going to play to our standard all the time or are we going to go out there and be flat?’ It’s hard.”

The Bulldogs didn’t relax against their overmatched visitors. History probably helped Georgia stay alert. In 2019, South Carolina took UGA down a peg by winning as three-touchdown underdogs at Sanford Stadium. This time Georgia had the game in hand midway through the third quarter and won 40-13.

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels played well after sitting out last weekend’s game with an oblique injury. Daniels was 23-of-31 passing for 303 yards and three touchdowns with a pick. Georgia’s defense leaked a few big plays. South Carolina otherwise did little while committing two turnovers and giving up a safety.

The Bulldogs are at Vanderbilt next weekend, then Arkansas comes to Athens. The Razorbacks can’t be trifled with. Georgia has a big test at Auburn on Oct. 9.

Alabama’s first major challenge came Saturday. Last time that happened to the Tide: vs. Florida in the the SEC championship game. They passed again. Bama looked vulnerable both ways in the run game. But perspective is needed. The Tide won a conference road game against an 11th-ranked opponent.

The other CFP hopefuls either have lost already, scuffled against lesser competition or both.

Clemson was favored by four touchdowns against Tech. The Tigers had to claw out a 14-8 victory. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, the replacement for Trevor Lawrence, still seems unsure of himself. It seems Georgia’s defense isn’t the only reason Tigers struggled to score while losing the opener.

Ohio State lost to Oregon at home last weekend. The Buckeyes had to score two late touchdowns Saturday to put away winless Tulsa. Oklahoma (3-0) scored its fewest points with Lincoln Riley as coach in a 23-16 home win over Nebraska. Quarterback Spencer Rattler, a Heisman Trophy contender, didn’t throw downfield much.

ExplorePhotos: Bulldogs are 3-0

The only possible knock on the Bulldogs so far is that they scored only 10 points against Clemson. That’s hardly an indictment. Clemson plays great defense. Since then, Georgia’s defense dominated Alabama-Birmingham and South Carolina while not allowing a touchdown until the Gamecocks were put away.

The Bulldogs started fast again. They scored touchdowns the first two times they had the ball. Daniels was sharp. Georgia’s defense leaked a big play early, but limited USC to a field goal. The Bulldogs led 14-3. All was good.

Then Kirby Smart inexplicably sent in Stetson Bennett for Daniels. Two plays later, Bennett threw an interception that set up Carolina near Georgia’s goal line. Bennett played great against UAB, and Georgia must keep him ready. But the timing of the QB change was odd: Daniels had just carved up USC’s secondary.

“Stetson earned that right,” Smart said. “It just didn’t work out.”

Georgia held USC to a field goal again. Daniels re-entered the game. Georgia punted to end its next possession before Daniels found his rhythm again.

South Carolina gained 18 yards before punting it back. Daniels moved Georgia into scoring range with three completions for first downs. The 11-play, 90-yard drive concluded with his 38-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell for a 21-6 lead.

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Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell hauls in a touchdown reception to take a 21-6 lead over South Carolina during the second quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept 18, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell hauls in a touchdown reception to take a 21-6 lead over South Carolina during the second quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept 18, 2021, in Athens.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia wide receiver Adonai Mitchell hauls in a touchdown reception to take a 21-6 lead over South Carolina during the second quarter in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept 18, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Bulldogs scored twice more in the half. They followed a safety with Jack Podlesny’s field goal before the break. Georgia led 26-6. The margin might have been larger if not for USC converting four of nine third-down plays. In the second half the Bulldogs lost a fumble and Daniels had an interception.

“Execution error on my part,” Daniels said.

Smart: “We’ve got to get better. We’re not where we need to be.”

Those are the kind of nits that get picked when it’s national championship-or-bust. Alabama is the measure. In the SEC East, Florida remains the main threat.

The Gators held Alabama to 331 yards, including 100 yards rushing (not including sacks). The Tide scored touchdowns on their first three drives, then went three-and-out on the next three. After halftime, the Gators rushed for 156 yards, scored three consecutive touchdowns and were 5-for-6 on third and fourth downs.

Good effort by Florida, but no one is playing defense like the Bulldogs. Their opponents ran 166 plays before scoring an offensive touchdown. South Carolina’s Josh Vann broke the streak with a 36-yard TD catch from Luke Doty. File it under garbage time.

Georgia snuffed out South Carolina’s chances soon after halftime. On the third play, Georgia’s Derion Kendrick intercepted Doty’s pass and returned it to USC’s 20-yard line. Tailback Zamir White needed just two tries to score from there. The Bulldogs turned a South Carolina fumble into another TD for a 40-6 lead.

South Carolina’s offense did manage one big play when it mattered. USC trailed 7-0 when Vann ran free down the left sideline and took Zeb Noland’s pass 61 yards before getting caught.

“They threw some one-on-one balls and beat us,” Smart said.

South Carolina’s next three plays went for no gain, minus-2 yards, and no gain before the Gamecocks kicked a field goal. Georgia responded with its second touchdown drive of six plays and 75 yards. The first one lasted 2:39 and ended with James Cook’s 23-yard run.

Georgia needed just 1:28 to score after USC’s field goal. Daniels passed on all six plays and competed five. His 43-yard strike to Jermaine Burton put Georgia ahead 14-3. That’s when Bennett entered the game.

The Gamecocks gained just 162 games before falling behind 40-6. The Bulldogs had 408 yards at that point. The Bulldogs weren’t always sharp against South Carolina, but they were dominant. They still have their eye on Bama.