Race to Atlanta begins with Georgia-South Carolina

If the SEC Eastern Division race were conducted on a track, the Georgia Bulldogs would be known as slow starters. The past two years the Bulldogs lost games to South Carolina by midseason only to show some great kick down the stretch to reach the finish line first and play in the SEC Championship game.

But as No. 11 Georgia prepares to host No. 6 South Carolina in the SEC opener for both teams Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium, coach Mark Richt would just as soon see his team get out of the blocks more quickly this time. Based on the schedule, there looks to be some better track ahead for South Carolina. And losing to the Gamecocks and coach Steve Spurrier — three years running now — is just plain getting old.

“It will go a long way in (deciding) the East battle,” Richt said of Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. game (ESPN). “Any conference game counts toward the goal of winning the East and a game against an Eastern Division opponent is even more important than if you play somebody from the West. So it’s a big deal. It’s on the forefront of our thinking, and I’m sure it is for South Carolina as well.”

The Gamecocks were feeling good about their chances in each of the past two years. They scored an almost inexplicable 45-42 win over Georgia two years ago in Athens and throttled the Bulldogs 35-7 last year in Columbia. But each time they looked at the standings at the end of the season and saw their 6-2 conference record sitting behind Georgia’s 7-1.

“We’ve learned the winner doesn’t necessarily win the Eastern Division,” Spurrier said this week. “It does put the winner in pretty good shape, but it certainly doesn’t determine the winner. The winner of the last two years has not gone, so there’s a lot more to it than this game, as we’ve found out.”

The past two years Spurrier carped about the Bulldogs having the easier of the two cross-division schedules. South Carolina dropped games to Auburn and Arkansas in 2011 and lost to Florida and LSU back-to-back last year. Georgia has managed to run the table after losing to the Gamecocks, getting by Auburn and Mississippi State in 2011 and Ole Miss and Auburn in 2012.

The thought is the Gamecocks get the better end of that bargain this season. They play a rebuilding Arkansas team under a first-year coach in October and have Mississippi State at home this season. Meanwhile, LSU comes back on the schedule for Georgia (Sept. 28 in Athens). The Bulldogs always play Auburn and go to The Plains for a second year in a row in a wrinkle caused by conference expansion.

For those and other reasons, Saturday’s game has a weighty feel beyond your standard conference opener.

“We don’t want to leave it up to hoping someone beats someone else,” Georgia sophomore offensive tackle John Theus said of SEC East implications. “We want to have control of our own destiny. So it’s a huge game. Whoever wins this game has a huge chance to win the East. I’m not saying this game will win the East because there are a lot of games out there. But if you win this game you put yourself in good position.

“We know it’s a big game, and we know we’re going to have to be on our ‘A’ game to beat this team.”

It’s only the fourth time in the 119-year history of the rivalry that both teams have come in ranked among the nation’s top 15 teams. The Gamecocks have won two of the previous three, including last year’s No. 5 vs. No. 6 matchup in Columbia.

ESPN’s cameras will be trained hard on No. 7 for South Carolina, Jadeveon Clowney. The super-human defensive end seemed almost mortal the first time out this season, failing to record a sack in a 27-10 win over North Carolina. But Clowney has had his way with the Bulldogs in their previous two meetings, recording three sacks and forcing two fumbles. Once again, senior tackle Kenarious Gates draws the primary responsibility for containing him for Georgia.

The Bulldogs are trying to get up off the mat from Saturday’s deflating 38-35 loss to Clemson. Georgia lost star receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the season in the first quarter of that game and tailback Todd Gurley for a long stretch because of a strained thigh muscle. Gurley, who had 154 yards and two touchdowns in limited duty against the Tigers, is back and claims to be healthy.

Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray, whose two turnovers proved to be the difference last week, will look to be sharper in Week 2. He’ll be countered by South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, a quarterback from Flowery Branch who headlines a band of 25 Georgians on the Gamecocks’ roster.

The Bulldogs will welcome starting strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons from suspension, but will have to go with a walk-on kicker for a second consecutive week as Marshall Morgan remains on disciplinary exile.

“(The Clemson game) is behind us now,” Gurley said. “We’re ready for South Carolina, and we’re just going to take it out on them.”