ATHENS — The upgrade in competition for Georgia was obvious when the South Carolina lined up for its first play Saturday at Sanford Stadium.

The Gamecocks are much bigger than the first two opponents who came here this season. Even a mid-tier SEC team is more physical than any from the FCS or Mid-American Conference. And South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler didn’t shy away from the pass rush like the quarterbacks for Tennessee-Martin and Ball State.

The Bulldogs knew all that, of course. They didn’t play like it until the second half. This was Georgia’s first real test of the season. The Bulldogs passed, but it wasn’t supposed to be this hard.

Georgia didn’t gain the lead until going ahead by a field goal midway through the third quarter. UGA didn’t gain breathing room until there was less than 10 minutes to play. The Bulldogs, favored by 24.5 points, won 24-14 by wearing down South Carolina after halftime.

Give the Gamecocks credit. I figured they’d get routed, but they were better than Georgia for a half.

“The story is, ‘Oh my God, how is South Carolina in this thing?’” Gamecocks coach Shane Beamer said. “We expected this. Anybody who is surprised by that has not watched us the past couple years.”

Well, I watched Georgia beat South Carolina 48-7 last season in Columbia. That game was over after a little more than a quarter. This one was close in the fourth. The Gamecocks were better, but it also was a lackluster effort by Georgia. The miscues included two missed field-goal attempts and some poorly timed penalties.

“My expectation is that we go out and dominate and create a nightmare and make people never want to play you again,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We didn’t do that today. But we did respond to adversity. It’s going to happen all over the country. Go look: (Teams) have to play close games to get better.”

Sports reporter Sarah K. Spencer talks with Georgia beat writer Chip Towers about the No. 1 Bulldogs’ strong second half vs. the Gamecocks.

The Bulldogs dominated South Carolina in the second half. They shut out the Gamecocks and intercepted two of Rattler’s passes during South Carolina’s comeback attempt. First-year Georgia starter Carson Beck faced game pressure for the first time and responded by completing 27 of 35 passes for 269 yards.

The Gamecocks led 14-3 at the break. The Bulldogs last trailed by two scores at halftime against Missouri in Week 5 last year, when they were favored by 30.5 points. The Bulldogs came back from a 16-6 deficit to win that game and went on to complete an undefeated season. Smart mentioned the Mizzou comeback to his players at halftime against South Carolina.

“We kind of reverted back to the same technique we were using then, honing on in our team DNA and staying composed,” Bulldogs defensive end Mykel Williams said.

The Bulldogs were vulnerable in the first half. South Carolina opened with a 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive. The Gamecocks immediately established that they could handle Georgia’s defensive front. Rattler made plays under pressure when the pocket broke down. His receivers snagged passes from all angles.

Georgia’s first possession bogged down in the red zone when South Carolina sniffed out three plays in a row. The Bulldogs made a 31-yard field goal with 2:02 left in the first quarter. South Carolina’s 7-3 lead held when Georgia missed a field-goal try from 28 yards with three-plus minutes until halftime.

Rattler had another chance to lead the Gamecocks to points. He did it by continuing to make Georgia defenders look silly, which rarely happens. Rattler got the Gamecocks into scoring range by shuffling away from the pass rush and hurling a 35-yard pass to Xavier Legette to Georgia’s 26-yard line. A false start pushed South Carolina back, but it didn’t matter.

Rattler calmly lofted a pass to Trey Knox for 18 yards before Dakereon Joyner powered in for a 2-yard TD. The Bulldogs started slowly for the third time in as many games, and now they were playing a team good enough to score an upset if they didn’t respond.

Smart on his team’s halftime demeanor: “Calm. Composure.”

The Bulldogs got the ball first after halftime and got the offense rolling with an explosive pass play. Beck feathered a long pass to Rara Thomas for a 36-yard gain to South Carolina’s 25. The Bulldogs finished the drive with power: Kendall Milton ran for 15 yards before Daijun Edwards scored on his second crack at the end zone.

The Bulldogs forced another three-and-out before tallying the go-ahead score. Beck was sharp on that nine-play drive. The Gamecocks answered by quickly moving into scoring range on their next possession. Rattler was still giving Georgia problems. His pass targets were finding plenty of space in Georgia’s secondary.

South Carolina moved to Georgia’s 34-yard line with passes of 23 and 11 yards by Rattler. Knox got open for a big gain, but Rattler’s pass was off target as Georgia defenders swarmed him. A sack on third down pushed South Carolina out of field-goal range. Georgia’s next drive ended with its second missed field-goal try of the game.

That ended up not mattering because the Bulldogs started to solve Rattler and their running game got on track. The Bulldogs turned back South Carolina’s upset bid, which they couldn’t do in the 2019 meeting here.

“They showed what a championship team does and why they have won back-to-back national championships, coming back in the second half and playing like they did,” said Beamer, a former Georgia assistant under Smart.

Georgia’s three-peat bid will run on two tracks until the schedule gets tougher. There’s what the Bulldogs do against overmatched opponents: Do they look like the favorites for the national title? There’s also what Georgia’s future opponents and fellow national-title contenders do elsewhere: Does anybody look better against tougher foes?

Georgia didn’t look like the best team in the country during its SEC opener. Meanwhile, No. 2 Florida State already owns a win over LSU in New Orleans and No. 3 Texas won at Alabama. The Bulldogs won’t play an opponent currently ranked in the Top 25 until No. 17 Ole Miss comes here Nov. 17. Georgia is at No. 11 Tennessee the week after that.

The Bulldogs will have to be better against those teams than they were against South Carolina. They may have showed their DNA by rallying against the Gamecocks, but they were looking for dominance.