ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, who has befriended South Carolina counterpart Mike Davis, has been to Columbia, S.C., more than once since that night. Of course, Gurley, who is possibly the nation’s best back, gets recognized in another SEC town. “They ask me what I’m doing there,” Gurley said. And they remind him of the last time he came to Columbia in an official capacity.
South Carolina 35, Georgia 7. The matchup of then-undefeated, top-10 teams was over before the first quarter ended on Oct. 6, 2012. Gurley, then a freshman, remembers one thing above all else. “Just getting the crap beat out of us,” he said. Georgia would rally to win the rest of its regular-season games and take the SEC East. It would come within five yards of beating Alabama in the SEC title game. Anyone who saw the subsequent Alabama-Notre Dame game knows that means the ‘12 Bulldogs came five yards away from winning the national championship. But that night at Williams-Brice Stadium might haunt them more than their missed chance at the Georgia Dome. “It was just like a nightmare come true,” Gurley said.
Georgia will return to Columbia this Saturday to face a South Carolina team desperate to overcome a season-opening drubbing by Texas A&M that put the Gamecocks in an 0-1 hole. The Bulldogs are different. So are the Gamecocks. In Georgia’s first game, the Dawgs’ rushing attack dominated Clemson so thoroughly that they scored 21 points without throwing in the fourth quarter. In fact, the three touchdowns were scored on consecutive offensive snaps, and all three came on the same sweep to the right. In South Carolina’s first game, the Gamecocks’ defense got shredded by Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill, who threw for a school-record 511 yards in a 52-28 Aggies win. The Gamecocks rebounded and beat East Carolina 33-23 last week, but their defense still looked suspect.
Given what has happened this fall, the Bulldogs should head to Columbia feeling confident. Yet those who were party to the horror of two years ago will remain wary. They understand how quickly they can get embarrassed. In fact, they still watch the tape. “It’s like us sitting in the meeting room hitting ourselves over the head,” Georgia receiver Chris Conley said. “Why did we do that? We’ve repped this play a hundred times? Why did we make this mistake when it counted?”
It started innocently enough. The Gamecocks drove for a touchdown on the game’s opening possession. Then Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell returned the ensuing kickoff 48 yards to the South Carolina 47-yard line. That seemed to plant the seeds for a shootout -- the kind of game these teams played in Athens in 2011 and ‘13. But on Georgia’s third offensive play, South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles tipped Aaron Murray’s pass and DeVonte Holloman intercepted it. Quarterback Connor Shaw and tailback Marcus Lattimore proceeded to drive the Gamecocks for another touchdown. Georgia’s next possession stalled, and South Carolina’s Ace Sanders returned the subsequent punt 70 yards to the end zone. Suddenly, it was 21-0. The clash of heavyweights had basically ended in a TKO.
So, forgive Georgia players if they don’t get too wrapped up in their second-half manhandling of Clemson on Aug. 30. That 2012 Bulldogs team was good -- maybe national title-caliber good if things had broken a little differently -- and they got humbled. These Dawgs will approach the Gamecocks with caution.
And they should. While Texas A&M moved the ball with ease against the Gamecocks, that doesn’t necessarily mean Georgia will find the same success. The Aggies run a hurry-up spread from the Air Raid family. The Bulldogs have three-receiver and up-tempo packages, but they prefer a more deliberate pace and formations that include two backs and a tight end. South Carolina has proven quite adept in recent years at packing the box to stop the run and daring quarterbacks to beat them through the air. This is how an Alabama team with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson sputtered in Columbia in 2010, and it’s partially how the Gamecocks controlled Georgia in ‘12.
Plus, this series includes one of the oddest stats in the nation. The Bulldogs, despite experiencing plenty of offensive success elsewhere, haven’t scored more than 20 points at Williams-Brice Stadium since 1994. This isn’t a case of a small sample size. Georgia plays in Columbia every even-numbered year. No one can explain the offensive futility. How could anyone? The streak started in ‘96, in Jim Donnan’s first year as Georgia’s coach. Mark Richt was Florida State’s offensive coordinator at the time. In September ‘96, Gurley had just turned 2.
“It’s been tough getting points there for whatever reason, and hopefully we’ll do better,” Richt said this week. “[Former defensive end David] Pollack, I think, scored more points there than a lot of our offensive players there over those years.”
Richt can joke about the offensive struggles because they haven’t kept him from winning in Columbia. Even though his teams haven’t scored more than 20, he still has a 4-2 record at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Richt’s current team has likely the deepest stable of backs in the country. Gurley can flatten a linebacker or run away from a safety. His 2012 classmate, Keith Marshall, has proven himself in SEC play. Meanwhile, freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel showed against Clemson that Georgia’s running game will remain in capable hands after Gurley leaves for the NFL. “With an average back, to get a 25-yard run, you’ve got to open up a five-foot hole for them to get through,” Bulldogs offensive tackle Kolton Houston said. “But with our backs, I’ll be danged if we only have to open up a foot-and-a-half-hole and they’ll slither on through there. It makes us look a lot better than we are.”
Facing nine defenders in the box on Saturday, those creases might not even be the 18 inches required by Georgia’s backs. That puts the onus on fifth-year senior quarterback Hutson Mason, who will make his first start in a hostile SEC stadium, to step up. Mason knows the momentum could flip if he makes mistakes. “You can’t be naïve,” Mason said. “Teams are going to understand that Todd is our biggest weapon. We would’ve liked to throw the ball a little bit better against Clemson, but I felt like we were pretty balanced and did a good job when we did throw it. When we get those one-on-one opportunities against South Carolina, we’ve got to take advantage of them. If we don’t, we may still be able to find a way to win, but I don’t really like our chances if we can’t throw the ball effectively.”
Mason will need to use veterans such as Conley and Michael Bennett, as well as less experienced targets like Kenneth Towns and Reggie Davis. Georgia’s receiving roster is deep, but Mason won’t have Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley or Jonathon Rumph available. Still, he believes the Bulldogs have enough talent to throw the ball effectively, which should help push the defense back and allow Gurley and the three only slightly less dangerous backs to establish the ground game. “We have guys out there right now who can get the job done,” Mason said of his receiving corps. “It’s not the Barnum & Bailey circus out there.”
After watching South Carolina’s defense again, Conley is convinced his group will be critical. “That’s just a basic fact of football. If you stack the box, and bring safeties down, it’s going to force a team to pass,” Conley said. “Really, if you play in a one-high safety scheme and you have those guys in the box, there’s one-on-one coverage on the outside. So, scheme-wise, there are going those opportunities, but it’s really going to come down to us being on the right page.”
Unlike his predecessor Murray, Mason will not have to look across the line of scrimmage and see freak of nature and eventual No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. That difference has not been lost on the Bulldogs, who now must only prepare for South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s scheme instead of Ward’s (usually effective) scheme and the always-disruptive Clowney. “The guy’s a once-in-a-decade player,” Mason said. “You don’t have to put as much focus when you’re preparing on ‘How do you handle this guy?’ You sleep a little better.”
Meanwhile, a few of the Bulldogs haven’t lost sleep over the memory of their last beating in Columbia. In 2012 Houston was still fighting an NCAA ban for an extremely unusual -- and unintentional -- positive drug test. While the Gamecocks were thrashing the Bulldogs, he was at a hunting club in LaGrange, Ga. “That team is not playing this Saturday,” Houston said. “Those guys aren’t going to help us win this game. This team is only going to play South Carolina once -- unless something crazy happens at the end of the year.”
But the ones who were there can’t forget. “That was us playing,” Conley said. “Those were mistakes we made. That was a game we lost. We have to own that.”
On Saturday, they can try to make amends.
• Houston at BYU: We looked at BYU’s remaining schedule in Monday’s edition of Punt, Pass & Pork. It is not particularly challenging. Yet this could be one of the more interesting games. UTSA throttled Houston in Week 1, but that was a fairly shocking result. BYU has an extremely abbreviated week of practice before quarterback John O’Korn comes to town with an offense that will likely be better than the one Texas threw at coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team last week.
• Baylor at Buffalo: Bears coach Art Briles said this week that quarterback Bryce Petty would start against the Bulls despite suffering two cracked bones in his spine during a season-opening 45-0 win over SMU. Don’t expect Petty to get touched up. Baylor crushed Buffalo 70-13 last year when the Bulls still had Khalil Mack.
• East Carolina at Virginia Tech: As soon as the final second ticked off the scoreboard in Virginia Tech’s 35-21 win over Ohio State last Saturday, this became the biggest trap game of the week. The Hokies are the toast of the nation, while the Pirates kept it close for three quarters before falling at South Carolina. East Carolina is good enough to beat any team on the right day. If anyone in Blacksburg is still reliving last week in Columbus, the Pirates could plunder a win.
• UCF at Missouri: The Tigers should watch only the second half of UCF’s 26-24 loss to Penn State in Week 1 to get an idea of the offense they’ll face on Saturday. In that game, quarterback Justin Holman took over the offense in the third quarter and nearly led the Knights to victory. But UCF’s offense should be even better than it was against the Nittany Lions. Tailback Will Stanback, who missed the Penn State game with a foot injury, is expected to play this week. Of course, someone still has to stop Missouri defensive end Markus Golden, which has proven rather difficult to date.
• Kent State at Ohio State: Despite reports to the contrary, Big Ten teams have not canceled the remainder of their seasons. The Buckeyes will try to get back into the win column with a little faster start this weekend. In Ohio State’s past four games -- three of them losses -- it has fallen behind in the first half. “Maybe it’s the play-calling,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “I think we’ve been a little conservative just with who we have in there, but I think we’re beyond that now. That is something I did research. I don’t have the answer. If I did, I’d tell you what we’re going to do. We’re researching it and we’ve got three days to figure it out.”
• Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech: This game between teams with similar offensive philosophies will take us all back to the late 1970s, when the option was as common as the hurry-up, no-huddle is now. If that sentence prompted you to imagine Paul Johnson wearing a leisure suit, my work here is done.
• West Virginia at Maryland: After the Mountaineers rolled up 393 yards and averaged 5.7 yards a play in their season-opening 33-23 loss to Alabama, they should feel confident that they can move the ball effectively against everyone else on their schedule. Meanwhile, the Terrapins barely escaped Tampa with a 24-17 win over USF last week. An offense with a mended Stefon Diggs and Deon Long should be able to manage more than 201 yards through the air. If the Terps watched the rest of the Big Ten last week, they know they can compete in the league. If they beat West Virginia, they can feel even better about their chances.
• Louisville at Virginia: Bobby Petrino reiterated this week that Will Gardner is the Cardinals starting quarterback, even after a solid appearance from backup Reggie Bonnafon in last week’s 66-21 win over Murray State. But it’s good that Louisville knows it has a capable backup in case Gardner has to deal with the same kind of pressure that Virginia applied to UCLA’s Brett Hundley on Aug. 30.
• Miami (Ohio) at Michigan: We’ll let Paul in Toledo preview this one with his suggestions for improving the Wolverines.
• Iowa State at Iowa: The Cyclones found themselves on the business end of an officiating controversy once again last week. Unfortunately for Iowa State, the Big 12’s decision to suspend the replay official and communicator who worked the Kansas State game didn’t erase the touchdown the play in question set up or its effect on last Saturday’s outcome. If the Cyclones want to feel better coming off a 32-28 loss, they might have a chance against an Iowa team that mucked around for three and a half quarters against Ball State before quarterback Jake Rudock led two scoring drives to spare the Big Ten another embarrassing defeat.
• Minnesota at TCU: Who says the Big Ten doesn’t have any big nonconference games left? Well, actually, it’s pretty much this, Miami-Nebraska, Utah-Michigan, Northwestern-Notre Dame and …
• Purdue vs. Notre Dame (in Indianapolis): There it is. A week after the Fighting Irish crushed Michigan 31-0, the Boilermakers have a chance to defend the Big Ten’s honor. This might be a good time to mention that Central Michigan beat Purdue 38-17 last week.
• Tennessee at Oklahoma: Volunteers coach Butch Jones has a poster outside his office that was presented to him by a group of students. Here is the first line: "I promise that I will never take another win for granted." That's a great attitude to have at Tennessee, because it has been a long time since the Vols have had an elite program. But Jones and his staff are trying to recruit and coach their way back to that level. Saturday's visit to Norman should provide an excellent measuring stick of how far they need to go. The Sooners are a model of consistency, and this might be Bob Stoops' best team since 2008. Oklahoma has 12 fifth-year seniors, seniors or redshirt juniors among the position players on its two-deep depth chart. Meanwhile, Tennessee has 13 freshmen or true freshmen among the position players on its two-deep. That 21-point spread did not happen by accident.
• USC at Boston College: Dear USC athletic director Pat Haden, do not check your text messages during the game. Even if someone texts to inform you there is free candy on the sideline, please resist the temptation. Your place on the College Football Playoff selection committee depends on this.
• UCLA vs. Texas (in Arlington, Texas): A turnover-happy defense bailed out an inept Bruins’ offense against Virginia in Week 1. The offense bailed out a defense that allowed scoring drives of 75, 75, 85 and 61 yards, respectively, against a Memphis team that was supposed to be severely overmatched in Week 2. If Texas wasn't one injury away from starting Bevo at offensive tackle, this might be where UCLA gets tripped. But given what the Longhorns showed against BYU, the Bruins should make it to Pac-12 play undefeated.
• Penn State at Rutgers: Scarlet Knights players are obviously fired up for their first taste of Big Ten action. Good thing for them the Nittany Lions are just having a run-of-the-mill week and couldn’t possibly be so excited about future possibilities that they’ll play like guys who actually have a chance to win this year’s Big Ten title. Wait. What happened on Monday? Oh.
• Nebraska at Fresno State: Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini said this week that tailback Ameer Abdullah has to get more touches, whether in the running game or in the passing game. After his last touch, this seems like a sound strategy.
Vintage video of the week
The South Carolina-Georgia rivalry has only become nationally significant in the past four years, but it has produced its share of classic meetings. In 1993, South Carolina’s second season in the SEC, the unranked Gamecocks traveled to Athens to face the No. 14 Bulldogs. Georgia led 21-17 in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter when the Bulldogs stuffed the Gamecocks -- who had no timeouts -- near the goal line. Georgia defenders did not heed the advice of play-by-play man Larry Munson, who implored them to stay piled up long enough for the clock to expire. South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill, the owner of the finest mullet in college football history, rallied his teammates to line up for one final play. He faked to Rob DeBoer and handed to Brandon Bennett. Watch what happened next.
On the menu
Those headed to the Tennessee-Oklahoma game in Norman, Okla., should make a short morning drive to Noble to eat giant biscuits and massive, fluffy pancakes at Tiffany’s. If you see a bunch of Audrey Hepburn posters on the wall -- Get it? Breakfast … at Tiffany’s? -- you’re in the right place. Just remember to bring a wheelbarrow to help yourself back to the car if you dare order a full stack.