COLUMBIA— A mere two plays in, Damiere Byrd set the perfect tone Saturday night for a “Who wants it more?” showdown. The Gamecocks’ speediest wide receiver took to the thick air at Williams-Brice Stadium and wrestled Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo for an underthrown pass.
Byrd, a 5-9 sophomore, seized the football for a 42-yard gain. The No. 6 Gamecocks soon scored, and kept scoring as No. 5 Georgia sputtered.
The complete 35-7 victory will stand as one of South Carolina’s most complete football performances if Georgia doesn’t turn into paper Bulldogs. Thanks to losses by Florida State and LSU, the Gamecocks will jump to No. 3 before arriving in Baton Rouge next week.
“We definitely sent the message out to the whole country,” running back Marcus Lattimore said. “It’s not the same South Carolina. We can play with anybody.”
Hear it, as loud as Lee Corso in Gamecock garb or a Williams-Brice Stadium record crowd of 85,199: Southeastern Conference power has shifted.
Georgia and LSU were picked to win their respective divisions at SEC Media Days in July.
Now you have to like South Carolina or Florida vs. defending national champion Alabama in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
Who’s afraid of the SEC West? Right now, probably not the Gamecocks and Gators.
The only mixed message South Carolina sent Saturday night is that stars Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor blend as just two parts of a deep, talented defensive line. Kelcy Quarles, Byron Jerideau and Chaz Sutton came through again. A Georgia team that scored 51 points against Tennessee was held to a garbage-time touchdown.
“We thought if we put pressure on them, they wouldn’t get points on us,” Clowney said.
Sounds simple. But not many defenses can rattle good teams with a four-man pass rush.
“It’s fun to watch,” linebacker DeVonte Holloman said, “knowing that the ball has to come out fast.”
Steve Spurrier has never enjoyed football without forward passes as much in his entire winning life.
“We didn’t know they would be as effective as they were,” Spurrier said of his defense, “but we thought we could play with them. … We thought we could slow them down. We haven’t given up a whole bunch of touchdowns this year.”
Georgia was jumpy all night.
Aaron Murray, an NFL-bound quarterback, continually hurried his throws. It wasn’t so much South Carolina’s fierce pass rush as the threat.
Mark Richt, Georgia’s usually cool head coach, made an odd decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 2 late in the second quarter. Yes, the Gamecocks were ahead, 21-0, but Georgia had the second-half kickoff coming its way.
On offense, it has to concern South Carolina foes that the Gamecocks pummeled a top five team by completing only six passes. Redshirt freshman tackle Brandon Shell (Goose Creek High) has come so far since not making it through the opener at Vanderbilt.
Connor Shaw isn’t just one of the best running quarterbacks in college football, he’s one of the smartest.
“Our offensive line had one of its best games,” Shaw said.
So many firsts for the Gamecocks in this Georgia win. But first big-game win of the season means more than anything else to the current quest for a first SEC championship.
It was so hard to gauge a top 10 showdown featuring two 5-0 teams untested by unusually weak early schedules.
Old Carolina: Celebration of a sixth victory as bowl eligibility party time!
New Carolina: Wanting a piece of Bama.
“If we can play like this we have a chance for a real big year,” Spurrier said late Saturday night. “Maybe. But who knows if we can keep playing like this?”
Spurrier looks like he thinks he knows.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at email@example.com or on Twitter @sapakoff.