3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Georgia -6.5
A Key SEC East clash highlights this weekend’s action on the gridiron as the 24th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks host the 6th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina. The bells of panic are sounding for Steve Spurrier and Co. as the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 in SEC) have struggled mightily in their last two games, a 52-28 loss to Texas A&M followed by a narrow 33-23 victory over East Carolina. In both games, Spurrier watched as his defense was torched, particularly against the Aggies’ who racked up a ridiculous 680 yards of offense in the Opener, a record figure. Despite entering the season as the 9th-ranked team in the country, the Gamecocks have looked anything but, sliding precipitously down the rankings over the past two weeks. So just how does the Ol’ Ball Coach fix this mess, and keep his team from falling to 1-2 for the first time since 2008?
The trouble areas appear to be found exclusively on defense, where a year ago South Carolina allowed just 20.3 points per game (12th overall). However, Spurrier has had to replace as many as five starters on that side of the ball including both defensive ends, with one being some dude named Jadeveon Clowney. So as you can imagine, these Gamecocks have experience quite a few growing pains thus far; through two games they have allowed a total of 1,133 yards of offense, 832 of which has come through the air. Getting eviscerated by Texas A&M is one thing, but few expected them to have so much trouble with East Carolina. In a game that was much closer than the score would indicate, the hosts rallied from a touchdown-deficit in the second quarter, staving off a Pirates’ attack that posted 453 yards, including 321 via the pass. Just how rare is this for South Carolina; the Gamecocks have now allowed 450+ yards in consecutive games for just the second time since Spurrier came to Columbia in 2005, with the last instance taking place back in 2007. Perhaps a visit from Georgia will light a fire under the maligned defense, for the ‘Cocks have limited the Bulldogs to eighteen points or fewer in eight of their last nine home meetings.
As the defense continues their baptism by fire, Spurrier has the offense to lean on, which hasn’t experienced much of a drop-off with a new face under center. Senior Quarterback Dylan Thompson is finally in soul possession of the position after sharing time with his predecessor Conner Shaw over the previous three seasons. Lost in the shellacking against the Aggies was a pretty solid performance from Thomspon, who threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception, a high-water mark for a kid that has had his issues with turnovers in his tenure in Columbia. He was more accurate against East Carolina, completing 25-of-38 passes for 266 yards, a score and a pick. You can tell Spurrier has the confidence to let him air it out; the Senior has averaged 316.0 passing yards per game on 10.3 net yards per attempt, while attempting 39.0 passes per game, with those last two figures ranking third in the SEC. Getting more out of Tailback Mike Davis should help against what has been a nasty Georgia defense thus far. The Junior rushed for just 15 yards on six carries in the opener as the Gamecocks had to abandon the run completely when trailing A&M, but reverted to form churning out 101 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the victory over the Pirates.In last season’s 41-30 loss in Athens, Davis rushed for a 149 yards on just 19 carries.
Meanwhile, everything is beginning to set up quite nicely for Georgia (1-0, 0-0 in SEC) as they have risen to sixth in the rankings, on the strength of the 45-21 beatdown they issued to Clemson in the opener. Now after enjoying the past weekend off, Mark Richt’s club sits poised to take advantage of a struggling South Carolina team that was predicted by many to come out of the SEC East. When these teams met a year ago, Georgia emerged victorious from a wild affair that ended with both combatants combining for a total of 71 points and 990 yards of offense. Then Quarterback Aaron Murray was stellar, completing 17-of-23 for 309 yards and 4 touchdowns, while Tailback Todd Gurley led a rushing attack that racked up 227 yards and a score on 53 carries. However, Murray is gone to the NFL, replaced by Hutson Mason, who has patiently waited in the wings and will attempt to end a two-game losing streak in Columbia.
Like his counterpart in South Carolina, Mason has bid his time for years for the opportunity to finally lead his team, and the early returns appear to be positive. In the victory over Clemson, Mason completed 18-of-26 passes for 131 yards, while rushing for score. Clearly, Richt implored that he simply manage the offense, which was evident from the lack of passes attempted downfield; Mason has averaged just 3.6 net yard per pass thus far, ranking dead-last in the SEC. Granted, one game against a pretty solid pass defense is an awfully small size, but until the coaching staff expresses more confidence in the him, you can expect more of the same. Of course, it’s easy for Richt and Co. to shrug their shoulders in that regard when you have a Tailback like Todd Gurley in the backfield, who has emerged a legitimate Heisman candidate, if not the front-runner at this juncture. Gurley was simply sensational against Clemson, rushing for a career-high 198 yards and three touchdowns on just 15 carries, along with a 100-yard kick return for another score. The Junior trampled the Gamecocks’ defense in last year’s victory, scampering for 132 yards and a pair of scores on 30 carries in the 41-30 win, which ended a three-game losing streak in the series.
However, while Gurley draws all the accolades, the story to keep an eye on Athens in the evolution of their defense. Simply put, the past two seasons have not been ones to remember for the Georgia defense; from 2012 to 2013, the Bulldogs have yielded 366.6 yards per game (including 375.5 last season), the second-worst two-year run that the program has seen since 1950. Enter Jeremy Pruitt, the new Defensive Coordinator who Richt was able to pry away from Florida State in the offseason. A rising star in the coaching ranks, Pruitt has a resume’ that draw envious stares from many in the coaching fraternity. Over the last three years alone, Pruitt has served as Alabama’s Defensive Backs Coach (2011-2012) and most recently as the Seminoles’ Defensive Coordinator (2013). That’s right, folks, this guy has coached each of the last three National Champions’ defenses. The gamble is that some of his swagger will rub off on the players, and early indications would lead us to believe that to be the case; Georgia limited Clemson’s explosive offense to just 291 yards and 15 first downs, while racking up five sacks and an interception. Linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Leonard Floyd each had a pair of sacks, while Cornerback Aaron Davis logged the first interception of his collegiate career.