COLUMBIA, S.C. — So many championships and victories later, Georgia icon Vince Dooley still can't fully figure it out: Why'd his Bulldogs struggle so much with South Carolina?
It's a legacy that's stuck to the Bulldogs from Dooley all the way to current coach Mark Richt. South Carolina can't match Georgia's championship history or, most years, its top-level recruiting classes. Yet the Gamecocks have sprung more than their share of surprises on the confident Dawgs through the years.
Georgia lost just twice last season. One of them, though, was a 16-12 defeat by South Carolina, which finished 6-6 as the Bulldogs went on to the Bowl Championship Series.
No. 2 Georgia (2-0) figures on another tight one Saturday when it opens Southeastern Conference play at South Carolina (1-1, 0-1 SEC).
"We've had some great teams that ended up being champions of the SEC that struggled" with South Carolina, Dooley said this week. "It's a good rivalry that's had a consistent history of that."
And it didn't take Dooley, who coached 25 seasons, long to discover that. The Gamecocks were in the midst of a 15-game non-winning streak when they tied Dooley's first Georgia team 7-7 in 1964. Two years later, a South Carolina club that finished 1-9 and scored fewer than 10 points a game, gave Dooley's SEC champs everything they wanted before Georgia got out with a 7-0 win.
Then in 1968, the Bulldogs were headed to another SEC title. But they trailed the Gamecocks 20-0 before pulling out the 21-20 victory, Dooley recalled.
Richt knows how Dooley feels.
South Carolina handed Richt his first Georgia loss, a 14-9 defeat in 2001. Georgia won at least 10 games and three SEC titles the next four seasons, but only once beat the Gamecocks by more than a touchdown.
Then came last year. Despite an improved Matthew Stafford at quarterback and dynamic Knowshon Moreno to run the ball, Georgia couldn't fashion a touchdown and nearly fell out of the rankings after the South Carolina loss.
"We are playing the team we always play first, the one that's always kind of a bloodbath for some reason," Richt says. "It's just a game that almost always is very close."
Georgia owns a healthy 44-14-2 edge in the series, including winning five of the past six.
Former Gamecock quarterback Todd Ellis went 2-2 against Georgia from 1986-89, directing South Carolina surprises in his junior and senior years.
Georgia and South Carolina have run similar, I-formation offenses that haven't fully gotten going early in the year, Ellis says. "It takes a little time to find themselves," Ellis said. Georgia "may be more explosive at the end of the season, but I think that's part of it."
Another factor, Ellis thinks, is Georgia hasn't strayed far from Dooley's winning formula: Run the ball, keep the game close with defense and win at the end.
"You can't fault them for the success coach Dooley's had," said Ellis, now South Carolina's radio voice.
Still, it's probably led to more than a few nailbiters with the usually less talented Gamecocks.
Georgia began the year No. 1 and leads the SEC in points scored and total offense. Moreno, a high-profile Heisman Trophy contender, has six TDs in two games, almost halfway to last season's total of 14.
Then there's South Carolina, which is coming off its second consecutive loss to Vanderbilt. Coach Steve Spurrier can't find a quarterback and is in danger of starting the SEC 0-2 for the second time in his stellar career. The Gamecocks' most reliable star, receiver Kenny McKinley, is doubtful with a pulled hamstring.
Spurrier says South Carolina got several breaks to stay in front last season. "No question about it. They had several scoring opportunities, passes that they just didn't connect," Spurrier said. "That was the reason we won the game."
Spurrier believes his club has improved since then, despite losing their past five SEC games — by far the longest such streak of the career. "So hopefully, we'll start playing a lot better," he said.
Spurrier's success over Georgia probably figures in to the Bulldogs arriving as just a 7-point favorite.
"Darth Visor" vexed the Bulldogs for 12 seasons at Florida, beating Georgia 11 times and becoming the first to hang 50 or more points on the Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium while Florida coach.
But the Bulldogs can't worry about history, only what's ahead Saturday.
"We need to take care of business and keep rolling," Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran said. "We watched the film from last year to see the things we didn't do right. We know we can't go in this year making those same mistakes that got us beat."