There was talk of a South Carolina upset.
The Gamecocks were preseason picks to challenge Georgia in the SEC East. There was talk of 24th-ranked USC making a run at the SEC title game in Atlanta if it could beat third-ranked Georgia on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
There was talk that South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp had closed the talent gap with the Bulldogs after three solid recruiting classes.
There was a lot of talk.
The Bulldogs were supposed to be vulnerable. One season after nearly winning the national championship, Georgia lost six players to the NFL, including three first-round picks in tackle Isaiah Wynn, running back Sony Michel and linebacker Roquan Smith. Five Georgia players, including running back Nick Chubb, were taken in the first 66 picks in April’s NFL draft. The Bulldogs lost nine starters off their 2017 SEC championship team.
There was no way the Bulldogs could be as good or as talented as they were a year ago when the Gamecocks had battled to the end in a 24-10 loss in Athens, Ga.
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley was a year older, a veteran by college football standards, with 21 starts under his belt headed into Saturday’s showdown with Georgia. He had his favorite target back in wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who missed most of the 2017 season with a leg injury.
The Gamecocks had won three of the last four games against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium.
But after a 41-17 Georgia victory, the gap between the Bulldogs and Gamecocks appears to be getting wider.
“We wanted to show everyone that we’re still the same team we were last year,” said Georgia quarterback Jack Fromm. “We lost a lot of great players off last year’s team, a lot of leaders, but we knew what we had coming back. We knew we could compete with the best teams in the country. We wanted to come out here today and show everyone what we were capable of doing.”
Like Fromm, Georgia running back D’Andre Swift had heard the talk all week about a possible upset and how the Gamecocks were ready to challenge the Bulldogs for the SEC East title.
“I think we wanted to make a statement today,” said Swift, who rushed for 67 yards on 12 attempts. “People doubted us. They said we couldn’t be as good as we were last year and that South Carolina was better and coming after us. Well, look at the scoreboard.”
The Bulldogs appeared to be bigger, faster and more talented at just about every position on the field, but especially on the offensive and defensive fronts.
“They’re very good on the line of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “They’re massive on the offensive line. That would be it. We’ve got to be better up front, play blocks better up front, disengage better up front, tackle in space. They got the ball on the perimeter too many times. Overall we need to continue to improve.”
South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson believes the Gamecocks are closer than the scoreboard indicated.
"It was a dog fight," Brunson said. "Those guys are good, but we are just as good."
Muschamp is doing his best to restock the Gamecocks' roster and is on pace to sign a top 20 recruiting class. South Carolina currently has the 16th-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals, 24/7 and ESPN.
The verbal commitment from T.L. Hanna defensive end Zacch Pickens is the first from a five-star prospect since the Gamecocks landed Jadeveon Clowney. Add in four-star quarterback Ryan Hilinski out of Orange, Calif., and the 2019 class is one that the Gamecocks can build a championship contender around.
The big problem for Muschamp is that Georgia coach Kirby Smart is doing even better on the recruiting trail.
The Bulldogs landed the nation’s top recruiting class in 2018, which included the country’s top player in quarterback Justin Fields, who played mop-up duty in the second half Saturday. Smart is following that up with No. 1-ranked class going into December’s early signing period. The class includes Nolan Smith, the top-ranked defensive end out of IMG Academy, and the nation’s top wide receiver in Jaden Haselwood. Depending on which recruiting services one follows, the Bulldogs have signed or have verbal commitments from 10 five-star prospects since Smart took over in Athens.
The Gamecocks have one in the past five seasons.