September 10, 2008

UGA set for first SEC battle

The nation's preseason No. 1 team has won two games by a total of 63 points, ending any speculation the games have been in doubt by halftime.

All that's gotten Georgia has been a one-spot drop in the polls.

The second-ranked Bulldogs hope the start of SEC play will help boost them back up, and they'll kick off a rigorous conference slate Saturday at South Carolina, which dealt Georgia one of its two losses a year ago.

The Bulldogs (2-0) were far from a clear-cut No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25, receiving 22 of the 65 first-place votes that were split among five schools. Georgia's one-spot drop was more of a nod to USC's dominance of a major conference opponent, while the Bulldogs have beaten teams from the Championship Subdivision and the Mid-American Conference.

They've looked impressive in doing it though, outscoring Georgia Southern and Central Michigan by a combined 101-38 while racking up 1,087 yards of offense. Knowshon Moreno has led the way, running for three touchdowns in each game and totaling 168 yards on 18 carries in the 56-17 win over the Chippewas on Saturday.

"The polls were probably the last thing on guys minds," safety C.J. Byrd said. "We just wanted to go out and get a win, no matter how we got it."

After playing two overmatched opponents, though, coach Mark Richt should have his team's full attention as they prepare to face the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC East). Georgia was ranked No. 11 heading into a home game with South Carolina on Sept. 8, 2007, but had its national title hopes essentially snuffed out in the second week of the season, managing just four field goals in a 16-12 loss.

The Bulldogs have scored one touchdown in their last two games against the Gamecocks.

"This is a different brand of athletes from what we played in the first two games," Richt said. "I'm not trying to disrespect who we played, but if you look at the film there is a huge difference in the size, strength and speed of this defense compared to the first two games."

Richt's offense belongs to Matthew Stafford, and while the junior is now considered to be one of the nation's better quarterbacks, he's looked like anything but against coach Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. Stafford saw his first significant action in a college game against the Gamecocks in 2006 and threw three interceptions, though the Bulldogs won 18-0.

He followed that up with a 19-for-44 performance last season, taking three huge sacks and throwing an interception.

"I personally didn't play well at all last year," Stafford said. "It's definitely not a fun game to watch on film."

Stafford has played well in both games this season, completing 63.3 percent of his passes with four touchdowns. But he'll get another stern test from the South Carolina defense.

The Gamecocks have allowed an average of 181.5 yards in the first two games -- 11th in the nation -- and they've yielded just 69.5 passing yards per game, tops in the country.

Yet South Carolina is just 1-1 despite its stingy defense. They rolled over North Carolina State 34-0 in their season opener, surviving four interceptions and an offense that couldn't score until seconds before halftime. But the Gamecocks -- ranked No. 24 heading in -- kicked off their SEC schedule on Sept. 4 at Vanderbilt, and the turnover troubles continued.

Chris Smelley, who was 5-for-5 with two touchdowns after replacing Tommy Beecher against N.C. State, threw two interceptions, and South Carolina also lost a fumble in its 24-17 loss to the Commodores.

It was the second straight year a ranked Gamecocks team had lost to Vanderbilt. They were No. 6 when they fell 17-6 at home on Oct. 20.

"We were ready to play, we just got our tails kicked," Spurrier said. "We don't have excuses, they just beat us."

Spurrier wouldn't commit to a starting quarterback this week, saying it's likely both will see action. Smelley came off the bench in the 18-0 home loss to Georgia in 2006, going 7-for-11 for 64 yards, but didn't play in the win last season.

Receiver Kenny McKinley caused the Bulldogs some headaches in 2007. McKinley, who scored a touchdown last week in the loss at Vanderbilt, had seven catches for 102 yards a year ago in Athens.

South Carolina has scored 23 points total in losing its last three home games to Georgia.



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