COLUMBIA — The season’s first Eastern Division showdown in the Southeastern Conference is set: No. 5 Georgia at No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday.
The matchup between the 5-0 teams should again go a long way in settling who will represent the division at the Georgia Dome in the SEC title game Dec. 1. The winner won’t have a clear path — the Gamecocks (3-0 SEC) face undefeated No. 10 Florida on Oct. 20 while the Bulldogs (3-0 SEC) play the Gators a week later — but will have an edge the loser will need help to make up.
“It’s a huge game,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday. “We all know it.”
And it features some of the best the SEC East has to offer this season.
Young Georgia tailback Todd Gurley leads the league in rushing and has made the sort of impact Gamecocks junior runner Marcus Lattimore did two years ago. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney are two of the top pass rushers in the country.
Georgia, last year’s SEC East winner, have lost two straight in the series. The Bulldogs have never dropped three in a row in the rivalry that began in 1894.
“We’ve got something to prove,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “If we can keep improving, get prepared and stay together, we have a good chance to get after it.”
Both programs shook off challenges Saturday to remain perfect.
The Bulldogs seemingly had their game with Tennessee in hand at several points, yet had to hold off the Vols in a 51-44 shootout. Gurley and fellow freshman Keith Marshall powered Georgia’s running game, combining for 294 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
The Gamecocks trailed last-place Kentucky 17-7 at the half in one of their sloppiest showings of the year.
However, they tightened up after the break to pull out the 38-17 victory. Lattimore ran for 120 yards, just his second game over 100 yards this season.
He also rushed for two touchdowns.
Lattimore says he’s almost back up to speed from the knee surgery and rehab that cost in the final six games a year ago. He knows he’ll need to step up his game for what’s upcoming.
“I know I have to get way better if we’re going to have success against Georgia,” he said.
Lattimore’s first opened people’s eyes as a freshman against the Bulldogs in 2010. In just his second college game, Lattimore gained 182 yards and scored both South Carolina touchdowns in a 17-6 victory. The win jump started the Gamecocks run to the SEC East title and their first trip to the championship game.
The Gamecocks won again in Athens last year, a 45-42 victory, on the way to a 5-0 mark against SEC East teams.
But losses to West opponents Auburn and Arkansas cost South Carolina and sent Georgia to the title game.
Spurrier proposed during the offseason that only SEC division games should count to the league race, an idea that didn’t gain much traction in SEC meetings.
Spurrier, though, kept on poking Georgia, joking this summer that moving the game from early September as its been for several years to October would help the Bulldogs because they usually have a couple of key players suspended for offseason transgressions.
“I think that’s funny,” Richt said in response. “That sounds like Steve.”
Get ready for more Spurrier laugh lines this week since ESPN GameDay will be on campus for the weekend.
Spurrier recalled the last time the sports network’s show came to South Carolina was in 2010, the weekend the Gamecocks surprised then No. 1 Alabama 35-21 — the program’s first and only victory over a top-ranked opponent.
“That was one of the best days in Carolina football,” Spurrier said. “It sort of lets the world know, the country know, ‘Hey, South Carolina’s football pretty good.’”
The Gamecocks have shown that the past few seasons. The Kentucky win was their ninth straight, matching a program record set in 1984.
Jones and Clowney figure to have large says in whether that streak goes forward. Clowney is second in the SEC with 9 ½ tackles behind the line with Jones right behind at eight.
Both sides say they’re ready for the challenge.
“The rest of the season hasn’t been a whole lot of drama,” Richt said, “but I’m sure there will be drama next week.”