Back Gamecocks Ready for Dynamic Rivalry

Back To SEC

Gamecocks Ready for Dynamic Rivalry

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

South Carolina's successes aside, any time the Gamecocks welcome Georgia to town, storylines run wild and emotions run high.

During the off-season, we're good friends. During the season, you want to rip their face off.
~Stephen Garcia

South Carolina has gone 3-1 in its last four meetings with Georgia in Columbia, recent success that has added a white-hot spotlight to an already-heated neighborhood rivalry. Wins in 2010, 2012 and 2014 have come with critical momentum for the Gamecocks, who, on paper, are the Bulldogs' biggest threat in the SEC East. Saturday's setting stands as a potential springboard for the home team; should South Carolina beat Georgia, the status quo, at least for now, starts to shift. 

Dating back to the start of last October, the Gamecocks have won seven of their last nine games. Wins over the likes of Arkansas, Florida and Michigan are included in that stretch, with the only losses, playing in Athens and against Clemson, coming to teams ranked in the national top three. South Carolina already has college football's attention. Now, better suited for a showdown, the Gamecocks have both the stage and the chance to make a statement.  

After week one, South Carolina is one of just four power five conference teams to rank inside the top 23 nationally in total offense, with 557 yards compiled, and total defense, with just 238 yards allowed. The Gamecocks will attack Georgia with a veteran quarterback, perhaps the nation's most exciting player at wide receiver and a defense that did not give up a single play of 30 yards or more last Saturday, a feat recently accomplished by only four league teams.

South Carolina's successes aside, any time the Gamecocks welcome Georgia to town, storylines run wild and emotions run high.

"It was awesome," recalled former South Carolina star quarterback Stephen Garcia in an interview on ESPN Coastal. "Georgia has historically been a lot better than us, but we've improved a lot, a whole lot since Coach Spurrier and Coach Muschamp have been there."

Muschamp's Gamecocks, this weekend, have an opportunity at a signature victory. Nationally-ranked South Carolina will host the third-ranked Bulldogs in the CBS SEC Game of the Week. A triumph over Georgia would tie as the Gamecocks' second-best win ever, based on AP slotting. With gameday hype building, Saturday awaits as one of the most-anticipated home games in program history. 

In 2010, the last time South Carolina defeated a top three opponent, the top-ranked team in all of college football was overwhelmed at Williams-Brice; Garcia led the Gamecocks to a 35-21 victory over Nick Saban and Alabama. That afternoon, Garcia completed 17-of-20 passes, including three for touchdowns, in front of an absolutely intimidating home crowd. South Carolina, who topped Georgia a month prior, would go on to a historic SEC Championship Game appearance. 

Looking ahead, the man who led the last big upset in Columbia is excited about the possibility of another.

"I love the way the rivalry is shaping up. I think there are going to be a lot of fireworks going on this Saturday," Garcia continued. "I'm really looking forward it."    

Though without the acclaim of a South Carolina-Clemson or Georgia-Florida, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs have their own milestones and memories. The two programs first met way back in 1894, with 70 all-time meetings on the books. Famous highlights, for South Carolina, include a dramatic win in 1993 where Brandon Bennett scored the game-winner with mere seconds left to play, an improbable, defense-led upset of 10th ranked Georgia in 2001 and Marcus Lattimore's famed SEC debut in 2010. Over the last eight pairings, the series is split at eight wins a piece.

In 1980, star running backs George Rogers and Herschel Walker squared off in a contest where they ran for 168 yards and 219, respectively. Though the Gamecocks lost that clash, Rogers won the Heisman Trophy that very fall, while Walker won it two years later.

"It was about even, we won two and they won two," Rogers recalled of the rivalry. "I can remember playing against Herschel Walker. We lost 13-10, but Herschel was an elite running back and he went on to win the Heisman. I'm just a good friend of his. We've been good friends ever since."

Given the proximity of the two schools, South Carolina and Georgia have natural overlaps in fan support and recruiting pools. A border-war, there is always a bond, of sorts, between the programs. The Gamecocks' official roster lists 24 Peach State-natives. One of the returning team captains from 2017, end D.J. Wonnum, is from metro-Atlanta. 

Furthermore, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp played for the Bulldogs, a senior leader when Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was a redshirt freshman, following a standout prep career at the Darlington School in Rome. Muschamp and Smart both started to develop their coaching careers in 2000 at Valdosta State, a Division II power in the southern part of the state. Muschamp, on that staff, was the defensive coordinator and Smart coached defensive backs. The two are close friends.

Bryan McClendon, the offensive coordinator for the Gamecocks, also played wide receiver for the Bulldogs. His father, Willie McClendon, is one of the great running backs in UGA football history. Warren McClendon, a top offensive line prospect from along the Georgia coast, is Bryan's cousin and Willie's nephew. With offers from all over, USC included, Warren is verbally committed to the Bulldogs. 

Big picture, this is a rivalry with countless relationships.

"I know a bunch of the guys, like Aaron Murray and Orson Charles. All those guys are actually from Tampa and I've known them since high school. I'm good buddies with Orson Charles," Garcia shared. "I used to come down to Athens, believe it or not, during the off-season. I used to hang out with Logan Gray and Zach Mettenberger. I freaking love Athens."

Camaraderie is one thing, competition is another. South Carolina-Georgia is a series where everything else, for coaches, players and fans, is secondary. As will be the case this Saturday, the early season slotting on the schedule comes with extra significance in the ever-important race towards Atlanta. Familiarity only adds fuel to the fire. 

"During the off-season, we're good friends. During the season, you want to rip their face off," Garcia added.

Entering his third year with the Gamecocks, game two stands as a big-time barometer for Muschamp and South Carolina. This is a team and a fan base that is well-aware of what is at stake.

"Oh, they are going to be getting after it," Rogers smiled.

There are a number of moving parts to this latest edition of South Carolina and Georgia. The Gamecocks hope the SEC standings are one of the many.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports