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South Carolina Preview: When The Gamecocks Have The Ball

In the first half of this preview, I mentioned how precious points have been for the Bulldogs in recent installments of this series. Yet as few points as they've scored, they're still 7-2 against South Carolina under Richt, mainly because the Gamecocks have only put up 13 points a game against the Dawgs (and that's including last year's shootout). With the UGA defense reorganizing and the Gamecock offense potentially surging, though, the Dawgs will need every bit of that magic come Saturday.

Passing: 226.2 yards per game in 2009 (47th nationally); Stephen Garcia was 16-of-23 for 193 yards, no TDs and no picks in the opener against Southern Miss, with Conor Shaw adding another 32 yards and a TD.
Rushing: 121.2 yards per game (91st); totaled 224 yards on 35 carries last week, with Marcus Lattimore (14-54) leading the way.

For pretty much the entirety of the Steve Spurrier regime in Columbia, the line has been the number-one reason the offense has never really gotten out of the blocks, consistently dooming the Gamecock ground game to the SEC's cellar and doing everything it can to put the quarterback du jour in traction. The line certainly looked much-improved against Southern Miss last week, but it wasn't spectacular; Stephen Garcia's jersey stayed clean thanks mainly to his mobility, but Conor Shaw got sacked three times, and leading running back Marcus Lattimore averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. Georgia managed to get to Garcia twice last year, and that was before the defensive line ever got into its midseason rhythm; particularly with starting left tackle Jarriel King still in NCAA limbo regarding his accommodations at the Whitney Hotel this past summer, the Dawgs may have an opening to disrupt that offense that looked so good last Thursday.

Supposedly Georgia's new 3-4 defensive front -- which had a very promising debut against Louisiana-Lafayette, notching three sacks and completely stuffing the ULL rushing attack -- will markedly increase the Dawgs' ability to respond to mobile QBs, an Achilles heel that only got more and more severe over the last few years under ex-DC Willie Martinez. That could be a good thing against Stephen Garcia, a QB with boatloads of raw talent but one who is at his worst when he's put under pressure. In games last year in which Garcia was sacked two times or fewer, he completed 116 of 187 passes for 1,432 yards, 11 touchdowns, and only three picks; in the other seven games, he completed barely half his passes with a 6/7 TD/INT ratio, and his QB rating dropped by more than 40 points. The formation may be different, but if guys like Justin Houston and Demarcus Dobbs can still come flying in off the end like before, Spurrier may just be throwing a visor or two by the fourth quarter.

Can a completely overhauled Georgia defense wreak that kind of havoc, though? The Gamecocks' offensive line may have a spotty history, but they're still bound to be better than the unit that Georgia punctured all afternoon long in the season opener. They're blocking for better talent, too, as the addition of Lattimore to the backfield gives Carolina a deeper and more gifted RB corps than they've had in years. The 3-4 may be more versatile than what the Dawgs are used to, but until the players prove they can execute it against a formidable SEC opponent, any substantial improvement on the part of Georgia's defense belongs in the "I'll believe it when I see it" category.

Same goes for the pass defense, which -- aside from that one busted coverage that got Todd Grantham so agitated on the sideline -- looked fantastic on Saturday but will be assigned to cover a far more adept group in Columbia this weekend. At 6'4", 237, sophomore wideout Alshon Jeffery is far bigger than anyone the Dawgs' secondary had to cover against ULL, and bigger than any of our defensive backs, for that matter; between Jeffery, Ace Sanders, Tori Gurley and D.L. Moore, I wouldn't get too excited about the fact that tight end Weslye Saunders will be on the sidelines due to the Whitney Hotel investigation. The wealth of options for Garcia (and Shaw, if Spurrier decides to put him in) makes it that much more critical for the Dawg defensive front to get to him early.

If this ends up being a close game -- which history tells us it will -- Carolina can be confident in kicker Spencer Lanning, who nailed 17 of 20 field goals last season and missed only one under 40 yards.

Georgia LB Justin Houston vs. Carolina LT Jarriel King (or Kyle Nunn). OK, Justin, you want to prove you can still be a beast from the linebacker position? Now would be a good time to start. The defensive line took a while to get rolling last year in terms of quarterback pressure, and their inability to consistently get to Stephen Garcia is a big reason why Garcia was able to put up a career performance in the wild shootout in Athens (31-of-53 for 313 yards, at that time the most passing yards Georgia had ever surrendered to a single QB under Mark Richt). The Dawgs can't afford to let him get loose again this time.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.