ATHENS, Ga. — Rarely in the Steve Spurrier era has South Carolina seemed as sizeable an underdog as they are Saturday evening at No. 7 Georgia, where barbecue grills and cornhole boards were seeing plenty of action well before the teams kicked off at Sanford Stadium. Vegas likes the Bulldogs by 16 or 17 points, which is a dangerous number against a head coach who is often at his best when the odds are stacked against him.
This game brings back memories of last season’s trip to Auburn, where the Gamecocks entered as nearly three-touchdown underdogs against a foe ranked fifth nationally. Spurrier yanked the lid off his play-calling tool box, going for it on almost every fourth down and even springing an onside kick, and coming within a late incomplete fourth-down pass in the end zone of tying the game.
It was an impressive effort, even though it fell one touchdown short. If the Gamecocks could do that then, they certainly can do it Saturday, right? After all, Spurrier has already hinted that he may play as many as three quarterbacks. Who knows how many players will take direct snaps. Who knows where Pharoh Cooper may line up. Who knows what he’ll do on fourth down.
While you never rule out anything with the Ball Coach, keeping this one close at the end may be a more formidable task. Auburn proved highly-ranked paper Tigers, that close call against the Gamecocks presaging a late-season slide that would leave them with an 8-5 final record. And South Carolina had a quarterback in Dylan Thompson who would set a school record for passing yardage, and could keep the Gamecocks in the game with just about anyone.
Now? Thompson is on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad, and Georgia didn’t exactly go looking for a new defensive coordinator in the offseason. You have to think Spurrier will have a few tricks up his sleeve for this one, but it’s going to take more than a handful of fourth-down conversions to keep USC in the game. All the things which have dogged the Gamecocks in their opening two contests — slow starts on defense, inconsistences on offense, and careless mistakes all over the field — need to be cleaned up for them to have a chance.
Is that a lot to ask for a team still trying to find itself? Probably. The keys to a USC victory Saturday are stopping the run like they did in the second half against Kentucky, avoiding senseless penalties they can’t afford, forcing turnovers, controlling the clock behind their running game and not asking new quarterback Perry Orth to do too much. Manage the clock shorten the game, stop the run and be opportunistic. Is USC capable of that? Absolutely. But after four losses to USC in five years, Georgia is girded for this one, and an upset isn’t going to happen by accident.
If it does? If Orth plays the game of his life and the Gamecocks pull the biggest stunner of the Spurrier era? Well, consider that USC beat the Bulldogs last year and still wound up in the Independence Bowl. For all the rightful attention placed on this game, it’s never been the most accurate barometer of South Carolina’s season. Success for USC in 2015 still lies in winning the winnable games, one of which they’ve already let get away. The difference between another bowl appearance and flirting with a losing season is losing the games they can’t afford to lose.
This matchup at Georgia has never been one of those. Winning it, or just keeping it close in the fourth quarter, would be quite a feat for a Gamecocks squad relying on too many current or former walk-ons in too many positons. But regardless of the outcome tonight at Sanford Stadium, there’s probably another dogfight awaiting next week.