South Carolina travels to Athens this weekend to take on the Dawgs. If Carolina wins this game, it puts itself in excellent position to finish ahead of UGA in the division standings, and thus to win the division, although obviously Florida will still stand in our way. Beating UGA hasn't been enough to make it to Atlanta over the Dawgs the past two years, but that's in part been because UGA has played easier schedules than us, allowing it to catch up in the standings while we lost tougher games than it had to play. This year, it's the Gamecocks with the relatively easy schedule. If the Gamecocks get the head-to-head victory on Saturday, it will be difficult for UGA to catch us, given the relative unlikelihood that we'll lose two conference contests combined with the relative likelihood UGA will lose at least one more. So, again, huge game. What do we need to do to win? Read on.
Three Keys to Victory
3. Does Cody Waldrop Start, and If Not, How Will Clayton Stadnick Perform? I hadn't originally intended to include this issue in my three keys, given that Waldrop was projected to recover quickly earlier in the week, but now that there's a distinct possibility he won't play, it needs to be addressed. The center is an important player on the offensive line, among other things having the task of reading the front defensive alignment at the line of scrimmage and executing snaps. Particularly in a hostile road environment, these tasks are no simple task, and in a close game, a bad snap or two could easily cost us the game. The center also, of course, participates in the blocking scheme, and his role in particularly crucial against a 3-4 defense like that run by Todd Grantham. The center must block the nose tackle, and if the nose tackle regularly wins that contest, it will kill our running game. Georgia's starting NT Garrison Smith is not the prototypical huge player you usually see at the position on elite defenses, so Georgia's advantage may not be as significant as it seems if Stadnick gets the start, but still, we'd be going from feeling good about Waldrop's chances of dominating up front to hoping that Stadnick can do enough to keep our offense running relatively smoothly. Needless to say, we'll all be anxiously watching this situation until kickoff Saturday afternoon.
2. Establish the Run
Carolina's offense as currently conceived centers around establishing the run in order to open up the passing game. Obviously, the Waldrop/Stadnick situation looms large in this regard, but if Waldrop is ready to go or Stadnick plays well, there's little reason to believe we can't run the ball on Georgia. Our running game looked excellent at points last week, despite the fact that we ran a fairly predictable offense in the second half. If we get the run going, look for Spurrier to try to take some shots downfield, giving Connor Shaw an opportunity to dispel the notion that he can't play well in big games on the road. Shaw's job throwing the ball will be to take what he's given and do enough otherwise to keep UGA's defense guessing. Shaw's ability to run the zone-read should also help us in this game; now that he's healthy and more daring with the ball in his hands, he looked excellent on his reads last week. Georgia has had trouble defending this play in the past, and I'm optimistic that will be the case against this week.
1. Contain Gurshall
I'm optimistic that we'll move the ball well against what looked last week like a pedestrian Georgia defense. However, unless we absolutely explode offensively, the key to this game is going to be keeping the game from turning into a shootout, a situation that favors Georgia's dynamic offense. I don't expect a repeat of last year's defensive showcase against UGA. They're going to score more than seven points, probably more than 20. The key is to keep them below 27 or so, because there's every reason to believe that we can score at least that much. How to do that? Keep Keith Marshall and especially Todd Gurley from taking over the game. Carolina did a great job of containing these two last year, and by forcing so many third-and-long situations, our pass rush was given ample opportunity to manhandle Aaron Murray. When Gurshall run free, though, Murray is a different QB, feasting off more manageable downs and killing you with the play-action pass. Again, I don't expect that we'll completely shut down the UGA running game, but if our defense is disciplined, sheds blocks, and tackles well, we can keep things from getting out of hand.
The Waldop/Stadnick situation scares me a little bit, but I still feel good about this game after being impressed with Carolina last week and being underwhelmed by UGA's play in the trenches. I think Carolina will have a good day on offense and will do enough on defense to keep UGA from turning the game into a shootout. You also have to like our kicking game over UGA's to make a difference if the game comes down to field goals late. I'm taking Carolina 27-24.