The wild Tennessee game took a bit of a toll on both of our Manic-Depressive Previewers — specifically, on Manic Doug's liver and Depressive Doug's psyche. We almost couldn't get Depressive Doug to show up at all, as he's been breathing into a paper bag ever since Cordarrelle Patterson's 46-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. But responsible gentleman that he is, he recognized that this weekend's game at South Carolina is easily the Bulldogs' biggest test of the season so far, and he mustered the fortitude to show up (and, naturally, rain on everyone's parade). His debate with Manic Doug follows, and God willing, it'll be more exciting than the presidential debate Wednesday night.
Depressive Doug: Forty-four points. Forty. Four. Points.
Manic Doug: Yeah, OK, we get it, dog.
DD: Just for the record, there were two numbers in Tennessee's score last Saturday, and the second was a four, and the first one was also a four. Everybody got that?
MD: I know you don't have a lot of respect for my intellect and everything, bro, but I do know how numbers work. Can we move on to actual football talk, or are you going to show me how the alligator mouth eats the big number?
DD: How do we have an actual debate about this? Our defense, the defense that was supposed to be so good after returning so many starters from last year's team, got handled by Tennessee. And now we have to go back up against the team that dropped 45 points on us last year. How on earth are we supposed to stop them, do you think?
MD: You want an actual answer to that, or you just want to ask rhetorical questions and work yourself up into a lather?
DD: If you've got an actual answer, by all means, let me hear it.
MD: OK, here it is: For one thing, South Carolina's offense just isn't as good as Tennessee's. That's a statistical fact — the Vols are averaging nearly a hundred yards a game more than the Gamecocks are so far this season — but it's also true in terms of the threats and the matchups they present to Georgia. Tennessee has a strong-armed QB and two amazing deep threats at receiver, so that spread out a Georgia defense that had only just gotten back up to strength, personnel-wise. South Carolina, on the other hand, has a fantastic running back but no real deep threat in the passing game, which is how you end up with a passing game ranked 60th in the nation despite a quarterback who's top-10 in efficiency. Their offense isn't bad, but it's a lot more in our comfort zone than Tennessee's was.
DD: Oh, good. So glad to know that giving up 358 yards to Marcus Lattimore over the past two years is our "comfort zone."
MD: Lattimore isn't going to run wild on us again, though. He's just not the same as he was before he hurt his knee last season —
DD: Still got 440 yards and eight TDs so far this season, I'd say he's doing all right.
MD: Yeah, except he had 677 yards and nine TDs at the same point last season. Look, Lattimore's gonna get his yards; he's one of those "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him" kinds of guys. But he's still lost a step, and our guys are gonna know to be on the lookout for him. And without having to worry about the deep threats that Tennessee threw at us, we'll be able to contain him.
DD: How? By letting their offensive line gently move aside our front seven the same way Tennessee's did for Rajion Neal? He'd been averaging only 64 yards per game until the Vols came to Athens; he put up more than 100 on us.
MD: Is it possible that our defense didn't play as well last week because they were looking ahead to this game?
DD: So now we're making excuses? That's the best you've got?
MD: It's not an excuse, but look, South Carolina played like ass last week, too, and they were actually down by 10 at halftime to a much weaker opponent than the one we were playing. So it happens. Have you noticed that for all your hand-wringing over how underwhelming our defense has been this season, we've actually played pretty well when it's counted? Sure, we looked iffy against Buffalo, but we came back the next week and held Mizzou to 20 points, and their quarterback, who was supposed to be so dangerous, is still having night terrors about Jarvis Jones. Had an embarrassing first half against Florida Atlantic, came back the next week and destroyed Vanderbilt, held 'em to only three points. Even last week, when Tennessee was scoring off those turnovers and we were in danger of letting the game get away from us, the defense stepped up, pressured Tyler Bray and let us walk out with a win. Now we're about to head into our biggest game of the season — do you really think they're not gonna be able to get up for that?
DD: I'm sure they want to, but wanting to is not the same as doing.
MD: OK. I give up. Let's say you're right, that our defense really isn't that good, that we're not gonna be able to stop Lattimore and he's going to get up close to 200 yards like he has the last couple times we've faced him. With our offense averaging 536 yards and nearly 50 points per game, what makes you think we can't just outscore the Gamecocks just the same?
DD: Ummm . . . how about because that's the craziest thing I've ever heard? Is that good enough for you?
MD: Think about it: Lattimore went off for 182 yards against us in 2010 and the Gamecocks still only score 17 points. Last year he rolled up another 176 yards and the offense still only scored 17 points on us — the other 28 points came from that ridiculous fake punt by Melvin Ingram, a five-yard "drive" that came from a long interception return, a pick-six and that five-yard fumble return near the very end of the game. We gave them 28 points through turnovers and special-teams mistakes. Face it, if we don't give the Gamecocks opportunities like that, there's no way they score enough to beat us.
DD: Hey, that's great news, since we've totally stopped turning the ball over and giving other teams easy scoring opportunities! Except for, you know, just last week, when the Vols got 20 points in the first half off our turnovers and managed to stay in the game on that alone.
MD: Come on, man. You're the math whiz, you know all about the law of averages. You don't seriously think that's gonna happen two weeks in a row, do you?
DD: Why wouldn't it? Thanks to Jadeveon Clowney and that defensive line, South Carolina is second in the nation in sacks right now — they've already got 22 on the season. He's going to bring pressure this weekend, and Aaron Murray, as talented as he is, has yet to show he can consistently make good decisions against a fierce pass rush. Add to that a shambles of a punt-return game that can't keep us from starting drives inside our own 20, and you've got a recipe for exactly the same kind of screw-ups that lost the South Carolina game for us last season, and nearly lost the Tennessee game for us last week.
MD: Aaron Murray's a better QB than last year, though. And you know what? Our offensive line might even be better. They've only allowed seven sacks in their first five games — last year's line had given up nearly twice that. Sure, we'll be playing a lot of max-protect this weekend, but we haven't been leaning very heavily on the tight ends in the passing game anyway, and we're still leading the conference in total offense. Our fullback, Merritt Hall, has been probably the best pass-protector nobody's ever heard of this season. And even with all those guys in pass protection, we've still got enough weapons at the skill positions to keep the Gamecock defense guessing.
DD: Won't have Michael Bennett, though.
MD: That's a loss, no doubt. But we've still got enough warm bodies at receiver to put up the kind of deep-ball threat South Carolina hasn't really seen so far this season, and that I don't think their secondary is equipped to handle. And they can't just put all their guys back like we had to do against Tennessee, 'cause that'll be an engraved invitation for Gurley and Marshall to run wild.
DD: You know, you almost present a convincing case that Georgia's got this in the bag . . .
MD: I know, right?!
DD: . . . except it's dependent on too many conditions. If Marcus Lattimore doesn't have a huge day against us, and if the offensive line can keep Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor off Aaron Murray, and if Murray can make good decisions as a result of that, and if our punt-return game can stop screwing up and giving us lousy field position . . . then yeah, we have a great shot. Except there's no evidence to back up the hope that any of that will happen.
MD: So you think we're screwed, then.
DD: Not in so many words, but . . . absent any evidence to the contrary, I think Lattimore's gonna have another big day against us, big enough that the Gamecocks can survive on the same high-percentage, short-to-mid-range throws Conor Shaw's been thriving on all season long. I think we'll keep up with them on the scoreboard for a while, thanks to the balance we can throw at them with Murray's passing and the Gurshall tandem, but sooner or later the pass rush is gonna get to Murray and he's gonna make a mistake that puts points on the board for Carolina. We find ourselves in a bigger hole, start pressing, make another mistake either on offense or in special-teams play, and South Carolina chokes us out by pounding the ball over and over again with Lattimore until the final gun. And South Carolina assumes front-runner status in the SEC East once again with a 34-27 win.
MD: Wow. Three losses in a row to the Gamecocks for the first time in history, huh? Shameful. As for me, since I've actually got a little faith in our players, here's what I think's gonna happen: The score stays close for a while as South Carolina mixes it up a little between Lattimore and the short passing game from Shaw, but a big play toward the end of the first half shifts momentum — and it's a big play for Georgia, not South Carolina, as either Gurley or Marshall breaks off yet another long touchdown run to put the Dawgs in front. The 'Cocks will step up the aggression on defense in the second half, but Murray's found a rhythm now, and once he's laced another TD pass into the hands of either Tavarres King or Malcolm Mitchell, all of a sudden the Gamecocks are playing catch-up in a way that their generally conservative offense isn't designed for. Yeah, this is easily the best defense we've faced all season, so I'll say we get held under 40 points for the first time all year —
DD: Mon dieu! Your first realistic prediction of the season, maybe ever! How did it feel?
MD: — shut up, and probably right around 400 yards, but the Dawgs still come away with a 33-24 victory. BOOM! Still undefeated, still on track for an SEC title.
DD: Well, good to see you're now counting your chickens all the way through the beginning of December. As for this week, it looks like our predictions average out to a final score of Georgia 30, South Carolina 29 — you think you can handle it if it's that close?
MD: Long as we win, I'll be just fine. You're the one I'm worried about. You put down that paper bag yet?
DD: Yes, clearly. But I've got it right here at the ready, since I'm quite confident I'll need it Saturday.
MD: Not that I have any problem with anything that keeps you from talking, but seriously, you're embarrassing yourself. Why not trade out the paper bag for a beer bottle or something? It's a lot manlier, and you'll probably enjoy yourself a lot more.
DD: I guess, but how much breathing can I really do into that tiny bottle?
MD: Jesus. And you act like you're the smart one here. Just make sure that wherever you're watching the game, it's far away from me, OK? I don't want anybody thinking we know each other.
DD: Trust me, I have no problem with that. None.