By Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
What: No. 6 Georgia (1-0) at No. 24 South Carolina (1-1)
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson and Allie LaForce)
One week after South Carolina prevailed in a "must-win" game over East Carolina, the Gamecocks face a similar scenario against Georgia. With one SEC setback already on the books, USC can't afford another league loss or it will fall out of the divisional race. Most matchups between USC and Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium have been physically tough, defensive battles. Will the same thing happen this year despite the presence of offensive stars like running backs Mike Davis and Todd Gurley? CBS' cameras will catch all the action.
USC OFFENSE v. GEORGIA DEFENSE:
South Carolina's offense attained the perfect balance Steve Spurrier strives for every week when they had 38 rushing attempts and 38 pass attempts in the 33-23 victory over East Carolina.
Will USC be able to duplicate that symmetry against a very good Georgia defense? Quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis will surely try, along with Brandon Wilds, a receiving corps lacking a clear No. 1 pass catcher and an offensive line that appears to have settled on the best combination.
Davis, a native of Lithonia, Ga., ran for 149 yards against his home state university last year, but the Bulldogs won the war by winning the game. You know Davis will be extremely motivated to beat the Bulldogs at least once in his college career before he departs for the NFL. His 18-carry, 101-yard, two TD performance against East Carolina demonstrates he is positioned nicely for another big game against Georgia, and could become USC's fifth straight 100-yard rusher in the series.
While Davis grabs most of the attention, Wilds has started the first two games and amassed 94 yards on 23 carries (4.1 yards per carry). It is difficult to win an SEC without two running backs, so his contribution will be vital to USC's cause.
USC will try to consistently run the ball against a solid Georgia front seven (UGA utilizes the 3-4) highlighted by a linebacker corps led by ILB Amarlo Herrera (12 tackles vs. Clemson, 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss), senior ILB Ramik Wilson, sophomore OLB Leonard Floyd and junior OLB Jordan Jenkins. Wilson led the SEC in tackles in 2013 (133), while Herrera was third with 112.
In order for Davis and the running game to be effective, Thompson must complete some throws downfield to loosen up the Georgia defense. After two weeks, he ranks third in the SEC with 316.0 yards passing per game and third with 321 yards of total offense. This will be his first and only start against Georgia in his career, so he wants to make sure he does it right without errors.
The USC receivers got a boost Thursday when Pharoh Cooper practiced after suffering a foot injury and looked ready to play. Cooper is one of three USC pass catchers with at least eight receptions in the first two games. The sophomore has eight catches for 103 yards, with Nick Jones atop the list with 10 receptions for 157 yards. Shaq Roland, hot and cold so far, has eight receptions for 96 yards and is USC's primary target on the bubble screen.
The insertion of center Alan Knott into the starting lineup worked like a charm last week, as the redshirt freshman's shotgun snaps to Thompson were sharp and on target, and his blocking was solid. Right guard Cody Waldrop didn't start the ECU game, but came on after the USC offense struggled in the first couple of series and solidified the spot.
New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt also serves as the secondary coach and he is trying to bring stability to a unit that had seven different starting lineups last season. Redshirt freshman FS Aaron Davis registered Georgia's first interception of the season. Georgia was next-to-last in the SEC last season with just seven interceptions.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis, WR Shaq Roland, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, LG A.J. Cann, C Alan Knott, RG Cody Waldrop.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Sterling Bailey, LB Amarlo Herrera, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Jordan Jenkins, LB Leonard Floyd.
1. USC RB Mike Davis vs. UGA LB Amarlo Herrera;
2. USC WR Shaq Roland vs. UGA CB Damian Swann;
3. USC LT Corey Robinson vs. UGA DE Sterling Bailey.
COACH'S COMMENT: "Three weeks ago, we were advertised as the top team in the East and now they're advertised as the top team in the East. So a lot can change as we all know, but they're coming to our place. We have to believe that we can play a lot better than we have played." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier
GEORGIA OFFENSE vs. USC DEFENSE
Georgia senior quarterback Hutson Mason's path to the starting job parallels Thompson's. He patiently waited four years as Aaron Murray's backup (Mason redshirted in 2012) and made his first two career starts at the end of last season when Murray suffered a season-ending injury.
Mason was 18-of-26 for 131 yards in Georgia's 45-21 win over Clemson two weeks ago, and has accumulated a 61.2 percent career completion percentage. Georgia stuck with a short passing game against the Tigers, and rarely allowed Matson to throw deep.
While Mason has started Georgia's last three games, this game marks his first career SEC road start, so how he handles the environment is a major storyline. Murray struggled dealing with the crowd noise in his two starts at Williams-Brice Stadium in 2010 and 2012. Can Mason outperform his predecessor behind enemy lines?
Georgia's offense revolves around a deep stable of running backs led, of course, by Todd Gurley, who emerged as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner after his 198-yard rushing performance in the season-opening win over Clemson, the most yards rushing by a Bulldog running back in 13 years.
But Georgia also has Keith Marshall (knee injury limited him to five games in 2013) and highly acclaimed freshmen Nick Chubb (70 yards on four carries vs. Clemson) and Sony Michel (33 yards rushing, 20 yards receiving vs. Clemson). Overall, Georgia punished the Tigers for 328 rushing yards.
Georgia hopes opposing defenses focus so much on stopping the run that their wide receivers continuously face one-on-one coverage from defensive backfields. Georgia returns its top two receivers from last season in seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, who had five catches for 60 yards against Clemson. Malcolm Mitchell is still recovering from a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2013 season, opening up opportunities for younger receivers.
After seeing his unit make progress against East Carolina, USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has preached playing with emotion and effort, two vital ingredients missing from the opener against Texas A&M.
Ward will likely go with the same starting lineup from last week. However, the strategy will be different. Simply, instead of seven players moving backwards to help defend the pass, they will step forward to defend the run. Ward hinted safety Kadetrix Marcus could see a lot of action since he excels as an "in the box" safety. Since the game promises to be physical, USC's defensive depth at all positions will be tested.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Hutson Matson, RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Chris Conley, WR Michael Bennett, LT John Theus, C David Andrews.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Gerald Dixon, DE David Johnson, DT J.T. Surratt, OLB Skai Moore, SPR Jordan Diggs, CB Brison Williams, CB Rico McWilliams.
1. UGA RB Todd Gurley vs. USC LB T.J. Holloman;
2. UGA WR Chris Conley vs. USC CB Brison Williams;
3. UGA LT John Theus vs. USC DE Gerald Dixon.
COACH'S COMMENT: "South Carolina has run the ball extremely well against us in the last four times out. Every single time, they've had at least one guy get over 100 yards rushing. So we need to try to at least slow down that trend if we can." - Georgia head coach Mark Richt
Quarterback - Even
Running Back - Edge to UGA
Wide Receiver - Edge to USC
Offensive Line - Even
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Edge to UGA
Secondary - Even
Special Teams - Even
SYNOPSIS: USC-Georgia could be one of the most bizarre rivalries in the country. When the games are played in Columbia, they are fistfights. When Athens is the scene, a track meet breaks out. Much has been made of the fact Georgia has not scored more than 20 points in any of its last nine trips to Columbia and have been held to two scores or less in each of its last three trips to WBS. Georgia's offensive ineptitude in Columbia, along with the appetizing running back battle between Davis and Gurley and the underrated "Battle of the Fifth-Year Senior Quarterbacks" promise lots of discussion during the game.
PREDICTION: This game mirrors trying to sell real estate. Three factors are key: location, location, location. If this game were taking place in Athens or a neutral field, Georgia would probably win because it is the more talented team. But the contest is being played at Williams-Brice Stadium, a House of Horrors for Georgia on its last two visits there. Mark Richt acknowledged this week he has spoken with his team about their recent troubles in Columbia. The loud crowd noise clearly flustered the Bulldogs two years ago. Steve Spurrier smiled when he heard that, knowing Georgia's poor showings at Williams-Brice are having an effect on their mental preparation. What happens when something goes wrong on Saturday? Will Georgia hang their heads and say, 'Here we go again?' With a quarterback making his first career SEC road start, the answer is yes.