The eleventh of September will bring a game traditionally dear to the hopes of Gamecocks fans: our annual SEC-opening showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs. Our performance in this game has typically gone a great ways towards telling us what kind of season we will have. That will be no different this year, as Carolina must defeat the 'Dawgs if it wishes to make a push for its first SEC East Title. The game is also typically extremely close. Georgia usually wins (we're 3-7 over the past decade against these guys), but the margins over have been slim, with many games going down to the final seconds. That, also, should be the case this year, as the teams are relatively evenly matched, with any slight advantage possessed by Georgia being negated by Carolina's homefield advantage.
Let's get down to business and talk about the Bulldogs.
Offense: Although it was oftentimes maligned, Georgia actually had a fairly prolific offense last season. They had a knack for committing turnovers at the worst possible times, but other than that, this was a fairly efficient group of players when it came to moving the chains. On the surface, one would assume that that would remain the case this year, as the 'Dawgs return 10 offensive starters. The only problem is that the one new one is the quarterback, Aaron Murray. Murray is a RS freshman, and while he was an uber-recruit out of high school, he's still pretty green. I'm sure he'll end up being a good one for UGA, but one has to wonder how he'll respond to his first big road test.
Defense: The 'Dawgs will have a new-look defense this year, as Mark Richt brought in former Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Todd Grantham. Grantham replaces the much-maligned Willie Martinez, whose defenses over the past two years had been far below UGA standards. Grantham will replace UGA's former 4-3 with a 3-4, presumably to use extra, speedy linebackers to combat spread offenses, particularly that of UF. While it may take some time for the team to adjust to this new scheme, and while the 'Dawgs will have to replace some defensive talent that includes Gamecocks killer Rennie Curran, one has to believe that UGA will experience at least a slight improvement in defense under Grantham this year. With the talent Richt has assembled, could they really be any worse than they were at times under Martinez?Player Whose Name You Should Remember: A.J. Green, WR. Of course, everyone here knows who A.J. Green is. He's one of the best players in the country, and he's also a guy that's somewhat infamous in USC circles for his choice to turn his back on his home state. Still, it's worth reiterating: this guy is an amazing player. He's probably the best WR in the country, and projects to have a phenomenal year as long as his freshman quarterback is able to get him the ball frequently. He has a very real chance of being the first overall pick in the 2011 draft.
You can expect, of course, to see Stephon Gilmore line up across the line from Green. It should be a great matchup between one guys who is on almost everyone's first-team All-America list, and another that is on many second-team lists.
What to Expect: This series has been characterized by low-scoring, defensive affairs that usually involves some kind of boneheaded play (such as a goalline fumble) or strategy (Lou's second-half offensive "gameplan" in 04) on our part that blows our chance to win. Last year's game, though, departed from that paradigm. The game ended in a fairly similar way--close UGA victory that was enabled by a missed USC XP and then some goalline defensive heroics by Rennie Curran--but the game featured a lot more offense than the prior matchups. I expect that will be the theme again this year, although hopefully with a different result. Although question marks remain, particularly at QB for both teams and on the offensive line for USC, both teams should have solid offenses this year. This isn't to say that the defenses will be bad, but this game should be a far cry from, say, the 07 or 08 games.
Prediction: On 9/9/2000, the Gamecocks enjoyed a 21-10 victory over the 'Dawgs in Columbia. The game will go down in Carolina lore as the one that sparked a successful 2000 campaign and the program's overall return to a level of success it had not enjoyed since the 1980s. I predict another victory over the 'Dawgs this September, one that will hopefully spark another solid, eight-win season. The key to the game? As said, Murray will have a great career in Athens. But as a RS freshman coming into the pressure cooker on a Saturday night in Columbia, expect him to make some costly mistakes against a game Carolina secondary. Stephen Garcia isn't perfect, for his part, but his experience will help him manage an efficient game for us, and that will be the difference.