September 09, 2010
I'm not sure how much anyone outside of South Carolina noticed at the time, but Steve Spurrier showed up in Columbia in 2005 talking about SEC championships, and every year in the meantime has been preceded by some variation on the question, "Is this the year?" With Florida in rebuilding/reloading mode from major draft attrition and Georgia and Tennessee still languishing on the fringes of respectability, is one of the few – along with 2007, another season of flux at the top of the SEC East – that warrants something less than an emphatic "no." The Gamecocks came into the season with one of the most veteran lineups in the conference, the most experienced quarterback (Stephen Garcia) and with All-SEC-caliber talent in receiver Alshon Jeffery, defensive end Cliff Matthews, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and hyped incoming running back Marcus Lattimore, arguably Spurrier's most loaded lineup.
But even for guarded fans, last week's opener took the latent optimism to another level: Behind a pair of touchdowns from Lattimore and an unusually assured effort from Garcia, the 41-7 kneecapping of Souther Miss on national television was a far cry from the cover-your-eyes debuts by the USC offense on the same stage in 2006, 2008 and 2009, in far less-inspiring wins over Mississippi State and N.C. State (twice). The Gamecocks lit up USM for a frighteningly balanced 449 yards (224 rushing, 225 passing) and points on seven of eight possessions following a three-and-out to open the game – and the one that didn't put points on the board ended at the Golden Eagle 23 just before the half.
And now, the annual reality check: Spurrier is 1-4 against Georgia, one of the rivals he famously owned (and relished owning) during his decade-long run of dominance at Florida. The only time Carolina has managed to get out of the September litmus test with a 'W' (2007), it went on to blow a subsequent top-10 ranking in late October by losing their last five and missing a bowl game. Saturday is the first SEC start for the Bulldogs' redshirt freshman quarterback, Aaron Murray, and he'll be working with the best player on the field (if the NCAA allows him on the field at all), receiver A.J. Green. Last year in Athens, Garcia ripped UGA for 313 yards passing but came up short of the end zone on six different trips inside the Georgia 20 in a last-second, 41-37 loss.
That was on the the beginning of the ongoing red zone struggles, but the near-miss routine has been a recurring theme through the years in the Gamecocks' would-be breakouts. In 2006, USC fell short of the tying touchdown on 4th-and-1 from the Auburn five-yard line with 20 seconds left against the then-No. 2 Tigers; later that year, they went down on a blocked field goal to beat eventual BCS champ Florida on the last play in Gainesville. The late-season slide in 2007 could have been stemmed early, if not for a late, second-chance 48-yard field goal to tie by Tennessee's Daniel Lincoln and a subsequent overtime miss by Carolina's Ryan Succop that knocked the bottom out of the season. The 'Cocks were on the verge of an upset over No. 2 Georgia in 2008 before a goal line fumble in the fourth quarter helped seal a 14-7 UGA win.
In fact, before last year, none of Spurrier's first four teams had managed more than 16 points against Georgia, and Bulldog fans seem fairly certain the shift to a 3-4 look under new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has relegated the likes of last year's 37-point outburst to the dustbin of the late Willie Martinez era. But four of the five Spurrier-Richt showdowns in this series have also been decided by four points or less – every time, the Gamecocks are close. With another year under Garcia's belt, Lattimore's impressive presence between the tackles and Jeffery's mismatch-exploiting height, Spurrier has the weapons at his disposal to make good on last year's many missed opportunities and deliver a kind of breakthrough – if not a genuine upset, at least the big early win USC must have to put together a breakthrough a season down the line, when Richt's Bulldogs have consistently denied. It's far too early for a win over a Green-less Georgia to make South Carolina's season, but with hurdles waiting in the SEC schedule – Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida – another early loss could certainly go a long way to breaking it.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.