ATHENS, Ga. – If you want to measure your favorite college football conference’s collective tailgate quality index, the scene outside any SEC venue will do.
Sanford Stadium on Sept. 18 was also the best place in America for South Carolina to test-drive a quartet of running backs who must carry a big load to give the Gamecocks bowl qualification hope in Shane Beamer’s first season as head coach.
On one sideline at The House That Herschel Walker and UGA The Bulldog Built: 2020 SEC rushing champ Kevin Harris, plus MarShawn Lloyd, ZaQuandre White and Juju McDowell.
On the other: 340-pound nose tackle Jordan Davis, former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick and their friends on No. 2 Georgia’s loaded defense.
The Bulldogs won the game 40-13.
The game within the game wasn’t that close.
South Carolina (2-1) finished with 96 yards rushing on 34 carries (2.8 yards per carry) but had just 8 yards on the ground at halftime (13 carries).
By then, Georgia (3-0) was up 26-6, and a perceived Gamecocks strength going into the season was in the books as an apparent weakness in need of major revaluation before Kentucky comes to Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 25.
That’s in big part because South Carolina’s running game was worse in Week 2: 100 yards on 39 carries (2.6-yard average) against East Carolina in a 20-17 victory.
Mistakes and sloppy play kept South Carolina from anything resembling progress at Georgia.
Beamer after the game shined credit on the Bulldogs, going on about the program's run of 5-star recruits.
"Other than that," he said, "they're really freaking good."
As for having the same running and blocking issues over the last two games, Beamer said they "absolutely" can be fixed.
"I saw some physical runs and, obviously, they have a real good defense and they're hard to run the football on," he said.
But, Beamer added, South Carolina has to keep getting better.
What a night on offense. South Carolina had a quarterback injury (Zeb Noland), penalties for a false start and illegal substitution, a long pass to Josh Vann ruled incomplete after further review and had to take two timeouts.
Then they went to the second quarter. The Gamecocks on their next possession were charged with a false start and back-to-back holding penalties.
So it’s hardly the running backs themselves. It’s a team effort.
A few ideas
Yards after contact were hard to come by in Athens and Greenville, N.C. All made more difficult by blockers or blocking schemes (or too often both) not getting it done.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart this week called on Bulldogs fans to get loud. They complied in South Carolina’s first SEC road game in a full stadium since 2019.
That had something to do with it, though throwing more passes to tight ends or running backs to take pressure of both the running game and quarterbacks might have helped the road team.
Just one pass caught by tight end Nick Muse and one by Harris before Georgia had a 33-6 lead in the third quarter.
Phil Steele, a top college football analyst, rated South Carolina’s running backs as the fifth-best in the SEC coming into the season (behind Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn).
That was preseason, in the glow of South Carolina rushing for 167.9 yards per game over the 10-game, SEC-only schedule of 2020 (No. 6 in the league) while saddled with an unproductive passing attack.
Georgia brain trust
The Gamecocks’ defense gets extra credit for accomplishing things without much rest. Thus, Kentucky coaches will study tape of a South Carolina offense that tries hard and in which Vann has emerged as a standout receiver.
No doubt, Georgia has more than a lot of All-SEC talent.
Smart knows defense; he was a Nick Saban defensive coordinator at Alabama.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is getting help from Will Muschamp. The former South Carolina and Florida head coach came to Georgia as a defensive analyst in February but was promoted to an on-field role in July after special teams coach Scott Cochran took a personal leave.
Muschamp was a mere 28-30 from 2016-2020 at South Carolina but led the Gamecocks to an upset victory at Georgia, his alma mater, in 2019 (Muschamp hugged or shook hands with many of his former players after the game).
Asked about that game earlier in the week, Smart said it “was really about us and not about them.”
Georgia’s dominance this time was about the Bulldogs, all right, but also about a problem South Carolina better get fixed in a hurry.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.