Wednesday, September 10
One more round with the infinite monkeys: the South Carolina preview.
Aaaand . . . spirit fingers!
Hometown: Columbia, South Carolina.
Last season: Beat then-11th-ranked Georgia in Athens, streaked to a 6-1 record and a #6 ranking . . . and then an iceberg popped up in the form of Vanderbilt, who stunned the Gamecocks at home and got them started on a season-ending 0-5 crash 'n' burn that rivaled anything you've ever seen on "Behind the Music."
This season thus far: Georgia has raced out to a 2-0 start by beating two relative tomato cans; South Carolina embarrassed N.C. State in their opener but lost any good will they earned from that win by losing to Vanderbilt the very next week, 24-17. You will see the latter game referred to numerous times over the course of this discussion.
Hate index, 1 being Brooks Brothers, 10 being Crocs: Eight and a half. No, I'm going to bump them up half a point from last year and give them an even nine. Ordinarily I'd feel nothing but pity for a program that had its chances of moving up to an even .500 all-time record dashed by losing to Vanderbilt last week, but then I remember stuff like this, and I'm reminded of how badly Steve Spurrier needs to be castrated without the benefit of anaesthesia.
Associated hottie: Whatever else you can say about South Carolina -- and I've said plenty -- their female student body stands up to just about any school in the country. One of them, former cheerleader Lauren Michelle Hill, even got named Miss February 2001 by Playboy, not that I think that's the pinnacle of female achievement or anything.
Celebrity preview: Barack Obama's Change You Can Believe In evidently involves beating the 'Cocks; his plan for doing so is here.
What excites me: Well, the Gamecocks' loss to Vanderbilt, for starters. That game provided a lot of good news for anyone who's got South Carolina on the schedule this year -- mainly that, in spite of their 17 returning starters and high hopes, the 'Cocks are no less brain-fart-prone in 2008 than they've ever been.
A more tangible take-away from that game, perhaps, might be that, Chris Smelley's big fourth quarter against N.C. State notwithstanding, the South Carolina quarterback situation still ain't anywhere near settled. Smelley was 5-of-5 for 92 yards in a single quarter of play, but if you actually watched that game -- as I did -- you might have noticed that N.C. State's defense basically gave up once the Wolfpack had gone into the fourth quarter facing a 13-0 deficit. The same NCSU secondary that had blanketed the Gamecock offense and goaded poor Tommy Beecher into four ugly interceptions in the first half suddenly decided that it was beneath their station to coexist within seven yards of South Carolina's receivers, a situation that only worsened as the score got more and more out of hand. To look at it from another angle, N.C. State only outgained William & Mary by 22 yards last week, so it looks like a win over the Wolfpack, even by a 34-0 margin, is something we can store securely in the "That Plus Two Bucks Will Get You a Cup of Coffee at Starbucks" category.
"Great job, Smell. Long as they keep playing that Cover Zero defense, we're golden."
And if last week was bad for Smelley (23/39, two TDs, two picks, sacked four times), this week may not get much better, for two reasons: One, the Gamecocks' top receiver, Kenny McKinley, is highly unlikely to play against Georgia due to a hamstring injury; two, Spurrier is telling the media that both Smelley and Beecher are "scheduled" to play this weekend. Whether Spurrier means that or not, it can't possibly do much for a QB's confidence when your coach is willing to give the entire country the impression that you haven't put any distance between yourself and Tommy Beecher. If that quarterbacking corps -- currently averaging just 216 yards and three picks per game -- can't get its shit together between now and then, that may cause more of a burden to be placed on the running game, which put up a mere 92 yards at a 3.2-yards-per-carry clip against a Vanderbilt front seven returning all of two guys from last year's team. Mike Davis is a pretty tough runner, to be sure, but given that Georgia allowed an average of just 2.8 yards per carry to its first two opponents -- gimmes, yes, but still teams that were supposed to bring at least a modicum of firepower in the ground attack -- I wouldn't count on a one-dimensional offense to get the job done against the Bulldogs.
What worries me: You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Georgia has scored more than 20 points against South Carolina in the last decade: two. That's also the number of times Georgia has beaten Carolina by more than a single-score margin during the Richt era. So even if we take it for granted that the Gamecock offense is going to struggle every bit as much as I projected above, they still may not need that many points to make a game of it anyway.
Only needed 16 last year, you'll recall. That was not a fun evening for me.
Even in their loss to the Commodores last Thursday, the Gamecock defense acquitted itself well, holding the 'Dores to just 225 total yards and 3.3 ypc on the ground. The plays that set up Vandy's rally were a South Carolina interception (for VU's first field goal), the recovery of a punt that grazed a South Carolina player (VU's first TD), and a pair of missed field goals. In four scoring drives, Vandy had only three plays longer than 15 yards. Our offense is certainly better balanced and more talented than Vanderbilt's is, but that doesn't mean we can go into Columbia expecting the 'Cocks to give us big yardage for free just because the wind got taken so dramatically out of their sails in Nashville.
That brings me to what I consider the $64,000 question this week, and it's a big intangible: Will South Carolina be fired up to redeem themselves after last week's upset, or so demoralized that they don't even care? Plenty of evidence certainly points to the latter, not the least of which is the Gamecocks' stunning second-half collapse from last season (which, as we all know, was also keyed by an upset loss to Vandy). And yet I just can't let myself count on a South Carolina sleepwalk here, because I've seen this story before. Remember last year, round about the first week in October? Remember how Tennessee was a 2-2 team whose coach was once again on the hot seat? Remember how we were 4-1 and coming off a four-TD drubbing of Ole Miss, with a running game that seemed destined to light the Vols up from the opening gun? Remember how none of that made a lick of difference, because Tennessee handed us our asses in a fashion as emphatic as any ass-handing we'd received at any point during the Richt era? What's even creepier to me is how we were supposedly so hot for revenge after getting embarrassed by Tennessee the previous year -- just like we're supposed to be hot for revenge against the Gamecocks now. Well, revenge-lust alone didn't work for us against Tennessee last year and it sure as shootin' didn't work for South Carolina last week, so it'd probably be a good idea not to depend on it too much in Columbia this Saturday.
In seasons past, South Carolina's typical M.O. was to start off sloppy and then get progressively better as the season wore on, which was great for us, considering that we always play the 'Cocks during the first three weeks of the season. Last year, though, the 'Cocks started off with a bang and spent the second half of the season crapping all over themselves. After the last two weeks, it certainly appears as though the Gamecocks have reverted to their more typical take-a-month-to-get-their-shit-together form, but really, how much money are you prepared to bet on that?
Player who needs to step up: DT Geno Atkins. My first inclination was to put Matt Stafford in this spot, since his struggles against South Carolina last year (19-of-44 for no TDs and one pick) were so emblematic of our team's ragged performance as a whole -- but his QB rating against the 'Cocks in '07 was only seven points worse than it had been in Columbia in '06, and we won that one going away. No, the difference between those two games was defense -- specifically, a rushing D that gave up 132 yards to Cory Boyd and Mike Davis last year after allowing South Carolina's entire team only 35 total rushing yards the year before. At 5.7 yards per carry, Mike Davis has been a fairly reliable chain-mover for the Gamecocks this year, and while the SC offensive line certainly hasn't looked like anything special so far this year, you could've said the same thing about them this time in '07. Georgia has allowed only 161 rushing yards all season long, but this is easily the best rushing attack we'll have faced so far, so Atkins and the rest of the defensive interior need to be prepared.
What I think will happen: As much as I'd like to think that Carolina is simply going to pack it in this year after falling to the Commodores, I'm reminded of the Infinite Monkeys Theorem, which states that an infinite number of monkeys, given an infinite number of typewriters, will eventually bang out the complete works of Shakespeare. By that rationale, given an infinite amount of time, the Gamecocks will eventually win an SEC title, maybe even engineer a period of dominance over UGA. I just hope it doesn't happen until long after Steve Spurrier and I are in our respective graves.
Will that period of SEC dominance begin this year? Doubtful, if last week's performance is any indication, but unlike a lot of Georgia fans I just can't bring myself to believe that it holds much relevance for the game this weekend, as comforting a thought as that might be. Could South Carolina lose to Vandy and beat Georgia in the same season? Hells yes they could; we have a precedent for that as recently as last year. And while one could make the case that a program with a South Carolina kind of mentality is almost a dead-solid lock to just give up and go through the motions after a loss like last week's, I hardly think Steve Spurrier sees it the same way. Frustrations in Columbia aside, the guy is a winner — or at least sees himself as such — and he always seems to bring out his best stuff for Georgia. The last few seasons, the Gamecocks have started off with sluggish performances against gimme opponents, with Spurrier all but admitting each time that he held back a little because he didn't want to tip his hand to the Dawgs; now, I don't honestly think the Ol' Ballcoach was willing to let his team go down in flames against Vanderbilt just so that he could hide his cards from Mark Richt, but still, I have no doubt that he's got some new wrinkles prepared for Georgia that we haven't seen yet.
Then again, he's already made it clear that he doesn't think we're "some big, powerful team," so maybe not. What do I know?
Gary Danielson, evidently, agrees: “This may be THE game of Steve Spurrier’s coaching era at South Carolina,” he told Tony Barnhart the other day. “If you look at Spurrier’s history, he is not one to stress or go back to fundamentals for a big game. He tends to search for something to pull out of his hat.” If anything, that search will be even more intense this week, because let's face it, this is a pivotal game not only for the Gamecocks — lose this one and they're 0-2 in the conference, their season basically shot two weeks into September — but for Spurrier and his legacy. By his fourth year at Florida, Spurrier had already won an SEC title; by his fourth year at Georgia, Mark Richt had won one as well. Even Tommy Bowden, after four years at Clemson, had secured one nine-win season (and gone to bowls all four years). If Spurrier has to write this season off, he knows it'd be seen as a tacit admission that the task of turning South Carolina into a contender was too much even for the Evil Genius, and he's gonna do everything he can to keep that from happening.
So yeah, something's gonna get “pulled out of his hat,” all right, and if I know Steve Spurrier at all it's going to come out of the passing game. Chris Smelley, for all the jokes about his performance against Vandy (and his last name), is probably neither as bad as he looked against Vandy nor as good as he looked against N.C. State; as George Carlin might say, “Somewhere between 'Live Free or Die' and 'Famous Potatoes' lies the truth,” and in this case I think the truth is good enough to put up some decent numbers on Georgia if we're not paying attention. Kenny McKinley may be out, but Jared Cook (10 catches for 130 yards this season, 1 TD) and Dion LeCorn (6-71, one TD) have proven themselves to be dangerous weapons in certain circumstances — dangerous enough to embarrass our secondary if they go into the game thinking they can half-ass it just because there's no McKinley to cover.
If Georgia stuffs the run well enough that the whole game is dumped on Smelley's shoulders, of course, then all bets are off; so far I've been given no reason to believe that Smelley will be any more effective in an OK-go-out-and-win-the-game-all-by-yourself situation than Blake Mitchell ever was. But even then, Georgia's going to have to figure out how to score some points one way or another.
If Paul Westerdawg is correct — and he's closer to that particular situation than I am — that South Carolina's fans are heading into this game a dejected and demoralized group, then he's probably also right that a couple quick early scores might be all we need to put the crowd irrevocably out of it and ride herd the rest of the way. The thing is, though, we haven't yet seen a defense anything like what South Carolina is going to throw at us Saturday, and I have a hard time picturing even our offense running up too big a lead early. I think South Carolina will be able to keep the score fairly close for most of the game, even if that's probably going to be due more to their defense than anything amazing they're able to do on offense, and I see the game going a lot like 2005: Georgia gets on the board first, then finds themselves scratching their heads at how well the 'Cocks are able to keep up with them on the scoreboard (or, conversely, how difficult it is to put any distance between themselves and USC). The Dawgs eventually pull away in the second half, but the Gamecocks stay close with a late score to keep their slim hopes alive, and once Georgia runs out the clock to preserve the win, the most accurate expression of Bulldog Nation's reaction is “whew.”
So it won't be anything like the cakewalk I've seen a lot of Dawg fans predicting over the last few days, but yeah, I think Georgia will be able to hold off Carolina's infinite army of typewriter-wielding monkeys for another year. Those monkeys may yet hammer out those Shakespeare plays or engineer that string of SEC titles, but I don't think it's gonna happen, and God willing, it won't happen at Georgia's expense.
Keep trying, though!
If you're trash-talking: With their loss to Vandy last week, the Gamecocks joined a very select group of D-IA teams who have an active losing streak to Vanderbilt. The others: Cincinnati, Northern Illinois, North Texas, and Duke. Bravo, gentlemen. What's worse is that coming into this season, South Carolina was two games below 0.500 in all-time winning percentage with a record of 521 wins, 523 losses, and 44 ties. Yup, all they needed to do was beat Vanderbilt to make it to the magical 50-percent mark . . . and they failed. Just try to come up with a more elegant metaphor for a college-football program this year; trust me, you won't.
And then there's always the fact that South Carolina has been dissed by name on "The Simpsons." BURN!
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: Because it's Steve fricking Spurrier. Come on. Even Florida fans don't root for him anymore.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia pitches a second straight shutout in Columbia. Incidentally, this tradition of making Georgia-flag-clad avenue-running wagers began exactly two years ago in the week leading up to the '06 Carolina game, when I said that if Georgia shut out Spurrier I'd make a bare-assed fool of myself in front of God, country, and Southside Birmingham — and, well, we all know how that turned out. If our defense once again finds it within themselves to crush the Gamecocks' dreams like so many ripe grapes, I'll be more than happy to do it again.