The tune-up against UL-Lafayette was nice -- really nice -- but we all know that was the undercard. This weekend's game in the ferociously unfriendly confines of Columbia, S.C., will be the real test of just how far this Georgia team has come. And if history is any guide, the Georgia offense will have its work cut out for it: Even with last year's bizarre shootout factored in, the Dawgs have averaged just 19.5 points per game against the Gamecocks under Mark Richt.
SOUTH CAROLINA'S DEFENSE, BY THE NUMBERS
Against the pass: 163.0 yards per game allowed in 2009 (8th nationally); gave up 337 yards to Southern Miss in the opener.
Against the run: 137.7 yards per game in 2009 (52nd); held Southern Miss to just 67 yards on 27 carries (2.5 yards per carry).
REASONS TO BE EXCITED
Southern Miss didn't score all that many points against the Gamecocks, but they did move the ball fairly consistently at times. The 337 yards allowed to the USM passing game is a little misleading, as Carolina naturally went a little softer in coverage late in the game after rolling up a 34-6 lead, but it's not like Southern Miss QB Austin Davis didn't have some success in the first half, going 17-of-23 for 144 yards and a pick (and that was even with star receiver DeAndre Brown being rendered a non-factor almost from the get-go). With linebackers Shaq Wilson and Antonio Allen sidelined due to injury, Davis was able to get into a rhythm in the short passing game; don't be surprised if Mike Bobo devises a similar game plan for Aaron Murray in his very first road game (and his first matchup against an SEC team). Bobo isn't likely to ask Murray to do too much too soon, but with a ridiculously deep TE roster and a crowded stable of RBs and FBs who have proven their mettle catching passes out of the backfield, Murray will still have plenty of options even in a conservative game plan. And Wilson, the Gamecocks' leading tackler last year, could miss not just the Georgia game but the rest of the season with a lingering hamstring injury.
Keep an eye on the status of cornerback Chris Culliver, too -- Culliver sat out Thursday night's game while the NCAA dithered over paperwork (sound familiar, Georgia fans?) related to an insurance policy he took out prior to his senior season. A.J. Green will reportedly play Saturday, and if Culliver doesn't, expect the Dawgs to throw 6'4" Green at Culliver's backup, 5'10", 176-pound CC Whitlock, all afternoon long. If last year is any indication, the results won't be pretty for the Gamecocks.
Georgia may have an advantage on special teams, too, as South Carolina ranked in the nation's bottom 20 last year in both punt-return and kick-return defense. Branden Smith had a couple of nice punt returns last Saturday, including a 31-yarder into Lafayette territory that set up Georgia's first field goal; Brandon Boykin also had a sweet 31-yard kickoff return following the Ragin' Cajuns' only score that allowed Georgia to maintain their momentum and get in position for their touchdown drive to end the first half. As for Blair Walsh, well, if the coaches send him in for anything shorter than 50 yards at this point, they're not even challenging him.
REASONS TO WORRY
For all the (well-deserved) offseason hype surrounding Georgia's experienced offensive line, the line only had a so-so game against Louisiana-Lafayette; they did keep Aaron Murray's jersey fresh-from-the-dryer clean, but from the stands, at least, it didn't seem like the holes they opened up for the running game were quite as big as they could've been. A lot of that had to do with Richt and Bobo not wanting to tip too much of their hand before heading to South Carolina, of course, and if you can rack up 193 yards (at 6.2 per carry) even with a fairly methodical, between-the-tackles running strategy, you must be living right. But Carolina's defensive front is an altogether different animal in terms of speed and overall talent. Having Washaun Ealey back to throw a different dimension at the Gamecocks will be a welcome development this week; let's just hope he isn't rusty.
The running game has to get in some kind of a groove Saturday, because if the Gamecock D is allowed to key in on a freshman quarterback facing an actual SEC team for the very first time, it's going to get ugly. Yes, Murray played and impressively poised and confident game on Saturday, but he also took some risks (that thrilling/terrifying touchdown scramble on the last play before halftime, f'rinstance) that he'd be advised not to take in Columbia. Let's hope Murray gets a refresher course on his throw-it-out-of-bounds skills this week; if we end up seeing Hutson Mason on Saturday, I'd like it to be because we've rolled up a four-touchdown lead, not because Murray tried to make something out of nothing and ended up getting carted out of Williams-Brice on a stretcher.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Georgia LG Cordy Glenn vs. Carolina DT Ladi Ajiboye. Glenn was battling illness for the last couple weeks leading up to the start of the season, and it showed at times against ULL. Left tackle Clint Boling should have the block locked down as far as Murray's blind side, but it'll be up to Glenn to help carve out lanes for Washaun Ealey and Caleb King against Ajiboye, one of the fastest and most vicious tacklers on the Gamecocks' defense.
(Tomorrow: Georgia's defense vs. the South Carolina offense.)