ATHENS, Ga. -- The Georgia-South Carolina matchup has been circled since the 2012 SEC schedule was released, with fans on each side predicting that it would be one of the most significant single games of the entire season in determining the winner of the SEC East race.
Sure enough, the No. 5 Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 SEC) and No. 6 Gamecocks (5-0, 3-0) made it this far without hitting a roadblock, creating exactly the high-stakes showdown most of us expected before the season started. Now it’s a matter of one team ignoring the enormous number of eyeballs that will follow what happens at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night and taking a giant step toward winning the division title and staying in the race for a national championship.
Let’s take a look at some of the significant factors entering Saturday’s matchup:
1. Handling the spotlight
It has been four years since Georgia has played in a game that matched two top-10 teams. It happened last year for South Carolina -- just the fourth time in school history, and the Gamecocks are 0-4 in the previous games. The Gamecocks lost 44-28 to Arkansas last year.
The is one of the biggest games in college football on Saturday and it should attract enormous attention, starting with ESPN College GameDay broadcasting in Columbia on Saturday morning. Although they have tried to play down the magnitude of this game, players on both sides know what is at stake in this key SEC East matchup. Whichever side handles the pressure of the moment better will emerge as the division frontrunner.
2. Lattimore’s impact
South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore has owned Georgia. We’re talking 358 rushing yards and three touchdowns in two games kind of domination.
Georgia’s players say they need to gang tackle the Gamecocks star and claim they are prepared to do so. But that’s what members of every defense say before they face Lattimore and he’s been fairly successful so far. This is the kind of game where the Bulldogs must put their money where their mouth is. If they shut down Lattimore, they probably win the game. If he runs wild again, South Carolina likely wins.
3. First real defenses
Let’s be honest. Neither Georgia nor South Carolina has faced a particularly effective defensive team thus far. And to be further honest, it might be generous to say Georgia has been a particularly effective defensive team yet in 2012 considering the yardage and point totals the Bulldogs have allowed at times this season.
But we expect Todd Grantham’s defense to return to its previously suffocating ways now that everyone is back in the lineup. And we already know for sure that South Carolina’s D is feisty. So how will the two teams’ offenses fare when they finally face a defense that can physically assert itself? It’s hard to say at this point. But what happens in Columbia on Saturday night will probably change the narrative for one of these teams’ offenses.
4. Quarterback questions
More specifically, Saturday night will affect the national perception of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw. Both of them have posted impressive numbers this season, but neither has had a breakout game under a spotlight as bright as the one that will exist at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.
This is the case more so for Murray, who has piloted Georgia’s offense on a school record-breaking run of five straight games scoring 40 points or more. He is still dogged by claims that he hasn’t won the big one, and a turnover-filled outing against South Carolina last season contributed to that perception. A big game and a win against South Carolina would end that criticism and might put Murray in the middle of the Heisman Trophy race.
5. Changing series history
South Carolina has a chance to do something it has never previously accomplished since the Georgia-South Carolina series started in 1894. Six times the Gamecocks have won two in a row against the Bulldogs, but never three. And Georgia coach Mark Richt does not want to see that happen on Saturday.
“It would be the first time in the history of the school that has happened, so we definitely don’t want to be on that end of the historical event,” Richt said.
Georgia’s longest winning streak in the series is 10 games (twice), between 1908 and 1941 and between 1966 and 1977.