It’s only Week 3, but the race to win the SEC's East Division heats up on Saturday, as Georgia visits South Carolina in a key conference game. The Bulldogs impressed in their Week 1 victory over Clemson, while the Gamecocks lost 52-28 in their opener to Texas A&M. South Carolina was able to regain some of its momentum by defeating East Carolina 33-23 in Week 2, but this team still has several question marks entering this Saturday’s matchup. Georgia was off last Saturday, and the Bulldogs are 16-4 under Mark Richt after a bye week.
It’s too early to call any game an elimination contest, but the Gamecocks simply can’t afford to go 0-2 in the SEC. For Georgia, this is an opportunity to beat another top-25 team and wrestle (early) control of the East Division.
Georgia at South Carolina
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Georgia -6
Three Things to Watch
1. South Carolina’s Pass Defense
The secondary has been especially problematic for the Gamecocks in 2014. South Carolina is allowing 416 passing yards per game, and opposing quarterbacks are completing 71.7 percent of their throws. The Gamecocks’ pass defense catches a small break on Saturday, as Georgia isn’t likely to throw the ball as much as East Carolina (46) and Texas A&M (60) did in their matchups. However, the Bulldogs – even without Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley – have options at receiver. Chris Conley and Michael Bennett are expected to see the majority of targets at receiver, and tight end Jay Rome is another player to watch in the passing game. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason is making just his second start on the road. Can the Gamecocks tighten up some of their struggles in the secondary? Or will Mason and the Bulldogs’ receivers torch the pass defense for another huge performance?
2. Todd Gurley and Georgia’s Running Backs
Considering South Carolina’s struggles against the pass, Georgia could open up the offense and allow Mason to throw more than he did in the opener (26 attempts). Even if coordinator Mike Bobo does allow Mason to approach 30-35 passes, the bread and butter of the Bulldogs’ offense remains on the ground. Running back Todd Gurley recorded 293 all-purpose yards in the opener and is a tough matchup for a Gamecocks’ defense allowing 5.0 yards per carry (150.5 ypg). Gurley is the nation’s top running back, but he isn’t the only option for Richt. Keith Marshall and freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will each see opportunities on Saturday afternoon. Georgia’s offense is more traditional (pro-style) than the spread attacks South Carolina has played so far. Will that help the struggling Gamecocks’ defense?
3. Dylan Thompson Versus Georgia’s Secondary
Coming into 2014, Georgia’s biggest concern on defense was its secondary. The coaching staff rotated several players into the lineup during offseason practices, and while this unit allowed only 203 passing yards to Clemson, the Tigers recorded three passing plays of 30 yards or more. Big plays have been South Carolina’s specialty in the passing game this year. Quarterback Dylan Thompson is averaging 14.0 yards per completion, while receiver Nick Jones (15.7) and Pharoh Cooper (12.9) are the preferred targets through the air. To protect their secondary, expect the Bulldogs to be active with their front seven. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will send different blitzes at Thompson, and the Bulldogs were able to sack Clemson quarterbacks five times in the opener. If Thompson has time to throw, he could find Cooper and Jones for big plays. But if Georgia’s front seven controls the pace of the game, Thompson and the passing game will be neutralized.
Despite Georgia’s impressive showing in Week 1 and South Carolina’s sluggish start to the season, this has the makings of a close game. The last two meetings in this series were decided by more than 10 points. But from 2004-08, four out of the five matchups were decided by a touchdown or less.
After struggling to stop spread offenses in the first two games, South Carolina’s defense will have its hands full once again on Saturday. Gurley recorded 132 yards and one touchdown against the Gamecocks last season and a similar effort could be in store in Week 3. But even if the Gamecocks contain Gurley, can they stop Mason and the Bulldogs’ passing offense?
A healthy Mike Davis at running back should help South Carolina’s offense, and Thompson will have chances for big plays in the passing game. Keeping Thompson upright and away from Georgia rushers is a huge task for the Gamecocks’ offensive line.
Expect a close game into the fourth quarter, but Mason, Gurley and the Bulldogs’ front seven will be enough for Georgia to win for the first time since 2008 in Columbia.