ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Mark Richt of the Georgia Bulldogs picks up his playcards after tossing them on the field when the South Carolina Gamecocks scored on a fake punt at Sanford Stadium on September 10, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
This post continues our series on our 2012 opponents. This week we're talking about the Big Kahuna: the Georgia Bulldogs. This is always a huge game for us, but with the two teams projected to compete for the SEC East title again this year, as well as a bit of drama surrounding the schedule, the contest has particularly high stakes this season. If both teams take care of business and make it to this point undefeated, we'll likely both be hovering around the top five, making this the most consequential game in the history of the series, not to mention one of the premier games of the 2012 college football season. The atmosphere in Columbia would likely be among the best ever. Even if one or both teams come in with a loss, we'll still be playing for our first three-win streak over the Bulldogs, and it's hard to imagine that this game won't have at least some kind of implication in the divisional race. Yes, folks, this is going to be a big game.
Georgia is probably the closest thing to an even match that we'll see this year, so it might be worthwhile to compare the two teams position by position to see where the advantage lies. So, without further ado:
Quarterbacks: Advantage Georgia
Aaron Murray is almost universally acknowledged to be one of the top two quarterbacks in the SEC, so he gets the nod here. I don't think that the margin is necessarily as wide as some might think, though. Connor Shaw is an underrated QB who has a couple of things on Murray: Shaw is better with his feat, and he protects the ball better. Murray needs to prove that he can avoid the costly mistake against elite defenses. However, he is a proven, excellent QB, more so for now than Shaw. It should also be noted that Georgia also has a capable backup in Hutson Mason. (Does that sound like a Dawg name or what?) We can't say the same.
Running Backs: Advantage Carolina
Even with Isaiah Crowell, Georgia didn't have an argument for having a more effective stable of backs than us. Without him, the gap widens, although I do think it's worth noting that things probably won't be as bad for UGA without Crowell as some may think. The Dawgs have a couple of very talented freshman in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. They also have some other solid options. They'll find something that works OK here.
Offensive Line: Advantage Carolina
This is a close one. Both of these two teams struggled on the offensive line at points last season, but Carolina's line did a bit better job of coming together at the end of the season, and we only lose a couple of guys, both of whom will be replaced by players who the coaches are very excited about. This is likely to be the best offensive line Steve Spurrier and Shawn Elliott have had. Don't sell the Dawgs short, though. They have to replace a lot of experience from a year ago and the Dawgs have generally struggled to meet expectations at OL for the past few years, but this is Georgia we're talking about. The expectations have been hard to meet largely because they've been so high. This group has the talent to be very good if they can find the right combination.
Keep reading after the jump.
Wide Receiver: Advantage Georgia
Although I think the talent is there for this to be a good USC receiving corps, until our guys prove that they can hang sans Alshon Jeffery, I'm not going to put them ahead of any reasonably good group of wideouts. Georgia has a couple of good ones in Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, even if they've underachieved at times. They also have Malcolm Mitchell, who was spectacular at times last year. However, Mitchell is apparently going to play corner this year, and it's unclear whether he's going to channel his inner Champ Bailey and keep playing receiver, too. There are some question marks here for UGA, and I could see our group eventually being better, but again, I'll believe it when I see it.
Defensive Line: Advantage Carolina
Don't get me wrong here; Georgia has an excellent defensive line, led by future pros John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. However, Carolina arguably has the best DE combo in the country in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, and our DTs will be good enough to keep opponents honest enough for our ends to do their damage.
Linebackers: Advantage Georgia
Carolina should have a good linebacking corps this year. We're very experienced with Shaq Wilson, Reggie Bowens, DeMario Jeffery, and DeVonte Holloman. Holloman will vie for all-conference honors, and I could see Wilson and maybe Jeffery doing the same. This is a group that should be able to do its job and, like our DTs, keep opponents honest enough for our ungodly DEs to do their jobs. Quin Smith will provide good depth. This should be our best group of linebackers since 2008, when we had Eric Norwood and Jasper Brinkley lining up together. That said, Georgia has arguably the best linebacking corps in the nation. Jarvis Jones will be right up there with Clowney and Taylor in the race to lead the SEC in sacks, and Alec Ogletree is another extremely talented player. The rest of the group is solid, too.
Secondary: Advantage Georgia
As with receiver, the Gamecocks have some question marks at secondary, particularly in terms of depth. The starters should be good, but the questions come in if someone goes down. The Bulldogs are in the same boat, but they're probably a bit stronger at the top. Perhaps not as strong as some might think--I've never been as high, for instance, on Bacarri Rambo as some in the media are. Georgia's stellar numbers against the pass last season undoubtedly owed as much to the lack of good passing offenses in the SEC and the fact that their defensive front made life impossible for quarterbacks and running games as it did to the secondary's work. Still, a solid group.
Special Teams: Advantage Carolina
Neither of these two teams had good special teams last year, and both are replacing departed kickers and punters. I do like our returning talent at the returner positions, particularly Ace Sanders at punt returner. However, comparing special teams with these two teams is probably an exercise in futility.
Coaching: Advantage Carolina
I like Mark Richt and his staff quite a bit, and I think they frequently get a raw deal from the media and some portions of their own fan base. Still, based on recent results, you have to think that Spurrier and his staff, even with a couple of changes in the staff ranks, will be the ones who find a way to address perceived weaknesses and get the team fired up for the big game.
Verdict: Surprised that this was as close as it was, with Carolina at five advantages and Georgia at four? And don't forget that one of our advantages was at special teams, which is probably a wash and in any event is less significant than the other categories. After two straight wins in this series, many Carolina fans now feel that we've gained the upper hand in this series, but the fact is that Georgia, for all the drama and underachievement that seems to plague the Dawgs, is an elite football program. They're loaded with talent, have a solid staff, and have all the resources necessary to make sure that doesn't change. It's simply going to be much harder for us to take the reins in this series than it will be, say, in the series with Tennessee. We can and and arguably already have made this a solidly competitive series, but we're not going to make Georgia our whipping boy.
That said, I do think we win again this year. It's partly about matchups. Until proven otherwise, I think we should be able to handle Georgia's running game, and while Murray is a dangerous passer, Clowney and Taylor are likely to have a field day with him, hopefully leading to some of the classic Murray breakdowns. Georgia's defense will likely make things tough on us, too, but if we can stay steady running the read-option with Shaw and Lattimore, we should be able to move the ball with a bit more consistency and without putting the ball in danger. I'm concerned about our ability to throw the ball against a team with such a great defensive front, but Shaw's ability to improvise with his feet should keep us out of trouble until our running game opens things up down field. All of this should equal a solid win over UGA, albeit in a lower-scoring game than last year.