ATHENS — Georgia’s preseason is over.
After routing Georgia Southern and Central Michigan, the second-ranked Bulldogs face their first serious test Saturday at South Carolina, a Southeastern Conference rival that beat them between the hedges last season — likely costing Georgia a shot at a national championship.
“It’s like a new beginning,” coach Mark Richt said Tuesday. “We’ve already played out first game of the year and our second game of the year, but this is our first conference game. It’s very meaningful to us.”
It’s also the real start of a brutal schedule that includes five opponents ranked in the top 15 of this week’s Associated Press poll.
“No disrespect to Central Michigan or Georgia Southern, but this is the SEC,” center Chris Davis said. “The SEC is a league of its own. ... The defenses are fast and physical, and South Carolina has one of the best defenses in the conference. This is going to be a huge test for us up front.”
The Gamecocks were ranked until an upset loss at Vanderbilt sent them tumbling out of the AP poll.
Still, they’ve had two extra days to get ready for Georgia, which averaged 50.5 points in its first two wins but knows this will be a huge step up in the degree of difficulty.
South Carolina certainly has more top-level athletes that either Georgia Southern or Central Michigan, and the Gamecocks will have more than 80,000 fans cheering them on at raucous Williams-Brice Stadium.
“They’re going to be playing a little bit wounded, knowing they’ve already lost a conference game,” Richt said. “If you have two losses in the league, you’re not out of it by any means, but that does make it a long shot. I know they’re going to be playing with that in mind.”
Georgia is still smarting from last year’s performance against South Carolina.
Playing behind a revamped offensive line, the Bulldogs failed to reach the end zone and were forced to settle for four field goals. The Gamecocks scored the only touchdown late in the first quarter, then turned things over to their defense.
The result was a 16-12 upset, South Carolina’s first win in the series since 2001.
“I personally didn’t play well at all last year,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It’s definitely not a fun game to watch on film.”
No fun, indeed. Stafford completed just 19 of 44 passes for 213 yards, including an interception.
The Bulldogs improved dramatically as the season went on, their only other loss coming at Tennessee.
By the end of the year, Georgia was playing as well as anyone, running up more than 40 points in wins over Florida and Auburn and finishing with a 41-10 rout of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
South Carolina failed to gain any boost from its big win in Athens, struggling to a 6-6 season. But the Gamecocks at least had the satisfaction of knowing they might have kept Georgia from playing for a national championship.
Without that loss, the Bulldogs would have won the SEC East and gotten a shot at LSU in the league championship game. Instead, it was Tennessee, which held a tiebreaker edge over Georgia.
LSU knocked off the Volunteers for the SEC crown and went on to beat Ohio State in the BCS title game. Georgia settled for No. 2 in the rankings.
“The South Carolina game and the Tennessee game,” said Georgia cornerback Asher Allen, still shaking his head at the memory. “If we win either one of those games, who knows where we end up? We know that winning in the SEC is really important. We have a greater appreciation of that now. We realize what happened last year.”
Even though Georgia’s holds a commanding lead in its series with the Gamecocks (44-14-2), this matchup is anything but a sure thing.
Richt’s first loss as the Bulldogs’ coach was to South Carolina in 2001, an ugly 14-9 setback. Georgia won the next five meetings, but three of them were decided by a touchdown or less and all but one was a defensive struggle. Last year was more of the same.
In the traditional SEC opener for both teams, the Richt-coached Bulldogs have failed to score an offensive touchdown in three of his seven meetings against the Gamecocks.
“This one’s kind of a bloodbath for some reason,” he said. “There’s not a lot of points scored, at least since I’ve been at Georgia. Historically, it’s not been a very high-scoring series. Both teams are usually pretty healthy when they face each other, and pretty excited about the promise of the season. That’s part of the reason why. And from a talent standpoint, both teams are very, very similar.”
The Bulldogs appear to be much further along offensively than they were a year ago. The guys up front have a year of experience under their belts. Stafford is more adept at checking off at the line, and he’s got more confidence in his receivers. Sophomore Knowshon Moreno has established himself as one of the top running backs in the country.
But, as Richt noted, “we’ve not played an SEC defense yet.”
“The jury is still out on how good we might be,” he added. “Until we play a couple of SEC defenses, I’m not ready to say we’re better than we were last year.”