Preview: 6th-ranked Gamecocks to battle 11th-ranked Georgia

  • No. 6 South Carolina (1-0) at No. 11 Georgia (0-1);
  • Sanford Stadium (92,746), Athens, Ga;
  • Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
  • TV/Radio: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe); Dial Global Sports (John Tautges, Rocky Boiman), Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM in Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore).

Conference play gets underway in style as South Carolina travels to Athens to take on Georgia before a sell-out crowd at Sanford Stadium. The Gamecocks seek an unprecedented fourth straight victory over the Bulldogs. In fact, before the current three-game winning streak began, USC had never won more than two in a row over Georgia. This is the 66th all-time meeting between the two bordering state schools. Only Clemson (109 games) has faced the Gamecocks more often than Georgia. Until 2010, the Bulldogs had dominated the rivalry, but not anymore as USC has turned the tables. Will the Gamecocks make it four in a row over UGA, securing a 2-0 start to the 2013 season.

USC OFFENSE v. GEORGIA DEFENSE:

USC's unparalleled success against Georgia has been built on one vitally important offensive premise - run the football. In the past three meetings with the Bulldogs, the Gamecocks have averaged 48 rushing attempts and 224 yards on the ground per game. When you consider USC is 35-4 under Steve Spurrier when it compiles 150 or more rushing yards in a single game, you know what the Gamecocks have to do.

Last year, USC ran the ball 51 times compared to 10 passes and won convincingly, 35-7. Of course, Marcus Lattimore had a lot to do with that ratio, just as he significantly impacted the 2010 and 21011 games as well. Will Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and perhaps Shon Carson experience the same degree of success running the football against Georgia?

Davis (115 yards) and Wilds (64 yards) combined for 179 yards in last week's victory over North Carolina, averaging 7.46 yards per carry. Davis looked in mid-season form on a 75-yard TD gallop in the third quarter. Wilds, meanwhile, turned nothing into something on a powerful fourth-down run in which he bulled his way forward for a first down.

When you add quarterback Connor Shaw and his scrambling ability into the mix (43 rushing yards), USC has three capable ball carriers. Clemson ran for 197 yards against the Georgia defense last week. If USC reaches that number, victory is well within reach.

C.J. DriggersMike Davis might hold the keys to USC's success against UGA on Saturday.When USC decides to throw the ball, Shaw has two new targets to throw at this week - wide receiver Bruce Ellington, who made a brief appearance and caught one pass in the UNC game, and tight end Rory Anderson, sidelined for the opener with a hamstring injury. Shaq Roland will look for another big play similar to the 69-yard TD catch he had in the opener.

The biggest issue on offense lies at center, where starter Cody Waldrop is battling a sprained foot. The redshirt freshman hasn't practiced this week, but will test the foot on Friday before USC departs for Athens and determine if he can play. If not, redshirt freshman Clayton Stadnik or true freshman Alan Knott could fill the void.

The rebuilt Georgia defense debuted six new starters, including three true freshmen, at Clemson with mixed results. The Bulldogs, which lost a pair of NFL first-round draft picks at linebacker (Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree), were led by linebackers Ramik Wilson (13 tackles) and Amarlo Herrera (12 tackles).

True freshmen defensive backs Tray Matthews and Brendan Langley, along with outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, became the first true freshmen starters in a season opener for the Bulldogs on defense since 2002. Before that, the last true freshman starter in an opener came in 1982, so it has been a rarity for a program that takes pride in its depth to have such inexperienced youth on the field.

KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Mike Davis, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Shaq Roland, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Nick Jones, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Shell.

KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DT Garrison Smith, DE Sterling Bailey, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Amarlo Herrera, LB Leonard Floyd, FS Tray Matthews, CB Brendan Langley.

KEY MATCHUPS:

1. USC RB Mike Davis and RB Brandon Wilds vs. ILB Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera;

2. USC C Cody Waldrop OR Clayton Stadnik vs. UGA NT Garrison Smith;

3. USC WR Bruce Ellington and WR Shaq Roland vs. UGA CB Brendan Langley and CB Damian Swann;

COACH'S COMMENT: "Most of our guys are healthy and ready to go. So we look forward to going over there and see if we can have one of our best games in a long time and hopefully our best game of the season when we play the Bulldogs. It does put the winner in pretty good shape, but it doesn't always determine the winner. So we've got to go in there hoping to play our best, hoping to improve upon last week's game and beat a team that was preseason number 5." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.

GEORGIA OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:

In terms of individual statistics, Aaron Murray is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in SEC history with 10,414 passing yards (three consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons) and 95 touchdowns in three-plus seasons. By the time this season ends, he could be the conference's all-time leader in both categories.

So, why do some Georgia fans express disappointment with Murray? Because the Bulldogs have yet to win the SEC championship during his tenure as quarterback, along with the general sentiment that Murray can't win the big game. Last week's loss at Clemson fed that perception as Murray threw a damaging interception and fumbled inside his 20-yard line, a turnover that quickly led to a Clemson TD.

Murray had a miserable game against USC last year, completing just 11-of-31 passes for 109 yards. But he wasn't helped by the lack of a running game as Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined for a meager 76 yards, finding little running room as the USC defensive line dominated the contest.

If Gurley, who ran for 154 yards and two touchdowns at Clemson in the opener (75-yard TD run on first carry), and Marshall are able to find the creases in the USC defense, they could make life miserable for the Gamecocks. Gurley totaled 1,385 yards on the ground a season ago (first 1,000-yard rusher for UGA since Knowshon Moreno in 2008) and looked bigger, faster and stronger in the first game, but will he be able to run for the same yardage against USC?

Jadeveon Clowney recorded his second career sack on this play in 2011. Gurley and Marshall hope, of course, the sometimes shaky Georgia offensive line proves capable of neutralizing Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton in the run game. That's easier said than done, though, based on how last year went in the trenches. Junior Kolton Houston started at right tackle in his first action as a Bulldog following a three-year battle with the NCAA.

Georgia lost its best weapon in the passing game when Malcolm Mitchell suffered a season-ending torn ACL injury early in the first quarter of the first game. Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are now the leaders at the receiver spot, with sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley making a move with four receptions.

Even though the Gamecock defense held the fast-paced UNC offense to 10 points and 293 yards in total offense, the story of their success holding down the Tar Heels was a distant second to the unnecesary hysteria surrounding Clowney and his "conditioning," which ignored the weather conditions (heat index approaching 100) and the tempo of UNCs offense.

Expectations are Clowney will ignore his critics and bounce back with a strong game against UGA. Will he match last season's dominating performance against the Bulldogs? If so, UGA faces trouble.

The young linebacker corps performed well in the season opener and should be re-energized by the return of OLB Cedrick Cooper from a dislocated elbow injury. His season debut gives USC tremendous depth at that position with Marcquis Roberts and Skai Moore excelling in the opener.

The secondary sees two changes - Victor Hampton was dinged up last week on special teams and won't start at cornerback. Instead, the duo of Ahmad Christian and Jimmy Legree get the call with Hampton, who has been pulled from his punt return duties as well, in reserve. In addition, sophomore T.J. Gurley is set to make his first career start at strong safety in place of Kadetrix Marcus, sidelined several weeks with a shoulder separation.

KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Michael Bennett, WR Chris Conley, LT Kenarious Gates, RT Kolton Houston.

KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Kaiwan Lewis, LB Marcquis Roberts, CB Ahmad Christian, FS Brison Williams.

KEY MATCHUPS:

1. UGA LT Kenarious Gates vs. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney

2. UGA QB Aaron Murray and WR Michael Bennett v. USC CB Ahmad Christian OR Victor Hampton and CB Jimmy Legree

3. UGA RB Todd Gurley and RB Keith Marshall v. MLB Kaiwan Lewis and OLB Marcquis Roberts

COACH'S COMMENT: "South Carolina is a very good football team, obviously. The last couple of years they have won 11 ballgames and they've beaten us three years in a row. We have a great challenge ahead of us. We have maybe a few redshirt seniors who have been on a team that had a victory over South Carolina, but no one else has had that distinction. It's a big game for both teams because obviously it's the first conference game to set the tone for the future. We don't have a game next week. We have an open date, and there's not a whole lot we should be holding back." - Georgia head coach Mark Richt.

POSITION COMPARISON:

Quarterback - Even

Running Back - Edge to UGA

Wide Receiver - Edge to USC

Offensive Line - Edge to USC

Tight End - Edge to USC

Defensive Line - Edge to USC

Linebacker - Edge to UGA

Secondary - Slight edge to USC

Special Teams - Edge to USC.

SYNOPSIS: After years of struggle and bitterly disappointing setbacks to Georgia in which the Gamecocks had plentiful opportunities to pull out the win (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009), USC has seized control of the rivalry with three straight wins, including the stunning 28-point thrashing in Columbia last October, its most lopsided win in the series. USC has also won two of the last three games with UGA at Sanford Stadium. Clearly, there is a new confidence around the USC program when it comes to the Georgia rivalry. Expectations now are the Gamecocks will win. Shaw and Davis both grew up in the Peach State and would love to go into Sanford Stadium and exit with a win.

PREDICTION: USC's offensive strategy should be simple - keep running the ball until Georgia proves it can stop it, something that hasn't happened in the past three years. However, the outcome will largely depend on the battle between the Georgia offensive line and the USC defensive front. If Clowney bounces back with a vengeance, as expected, he should combine with Quarles and Sutton to keep Gurley, Marshall and Murray in check. Nonetheless, as always when these two teams meet in Sanford Stadium, it will be close, it will be hard-fought and it will go down to the wire, perhaps to the very last snap of the game.

The Pick: USC 27, GEORGIA 24