After de facto exhibition games, No. 1 UGA hosts USC in SEC opener
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — The preseason is over for the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs.
Time to face some real competition.
Georgia carries a 19-game winning streak into its first Southeastern Conference game, hosting South Carolina in a contest that should be more challenging than the first two weeks.
The Bulldogs (2-0) opened with a 48-7 rout of FCS school Tennessee-Martin, then put a similar 45-3 beating on Ball State.
It was difficult to gauge from those one-sided performances if Kirby Smart’s team is the same dominant force that has won two straight national championships.
The coach, in fact, noted that he’s gotten a better read in certain phases during the week than on game days.
“It’s not been the caliber of guys we go against in practice,” Smart said. “Right now, the evaluation has been easy. It begins to get a lot harder this week.”
South Carolina (1-1) opened with a 31-17 loss to No. 20 North Carolina before beating FCS school Furman 47-21.
The Gamecocks, who are a 27 1/2-point underdog according to FanDuel Sportsbook, hope to duplicate their stunning upset of the Bulldogs in 2019 — especially after an embarrassing 48-7 loss to Georgia a year ago.
“That was a long day,” coach Shane Beamer said. “They played really, really well, and we certainly did not.”
“This is a statement game,” cornerback Marcellas Dial said. “We’re hoping to go out there and knock them off, like last year against Tennessee, last year against Clemson. Everybody counting us out before the game started, (saying we) can’t compete with them.
“We’re just trying to go out there and make a statement: We can compete with everybody and we can create another miracle like we did last year.”
Smart has no complaints about Carson Beck ‘s first two games as Georgia’s starting quarterback.
Still, the jury’s out on Stetson Bennett’s replacement until he faces tougher competition.
The Gamecocks are hoping to create some problems for Beck, who has completed 44 of 61 for 577 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
“He’s got a strong arm, but he’s new back there,” Dial said, “so we’re trying to do some things to make him uncomfortable back there, knock him off his game.”
Walk-on Mekhi Mews has been an unlikely offensive star for Georgia through the first two weeks.
Filling in for injured Ladd McConkey, Mews has six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. He also returned a punt for a score to spark last week’s victory over Ball State.
South Carolina’s combo of quarterback Spencer Rattler and wide receiver Xavier Legette are off to a very fast start.
Rattler, in his second full season as the Gamecocks quarterback, leads the SEC and is third nationally with 349 yards passing per game. He has connected on 83% of his throws (55 of 66).
“Spence is a dog,” receiver Eddie Lewis said. “We’re going to make the plays if we have the opportunity.”
Legette is the SEC’s top receiver with 148 yards per game.
RUN, DAWGS, RUN
Georgia has struggled to get the ground game going, an unusual development at a school known as Running Back U.
Injuries have been a major issue, but help is apparently on the way with the return of Daijun Edwards. The team’s top returning rusher from 2022, he missed the first two games while making sure a lingering knee issue was fully healed.
“Having him back helps tremendously,” Smart said.
Georgia has even used receiver Dillon Bell at running back, looking to find some explosiveness.
“Dillon Bell has been a selfless player,” Smart said. “It’s something that we’re always going to have, as an option or package, but a lot of it has to do with the health of our backs.”
CALLING OUT THE FANS
The Georgia fans could be especially loud after South Carolina defensive tackle Tonka Hemingway failed to include Sanford Stadium on his list of the toughest road environments in college football.
Smart certainly took note of the omission, challenging the crowd to prove Hemingway wrong.
“People want to question whether our fans are elite. Sounds like Tonka called them out,” the Georgia coach said. “So maybe use Tonka for motivation and let him be the one that spurns our group to come out there at 3:30 (p.m.) and be really loud and fired up. So I certainly hope our fan base will be there. They’ve answered the bell every single time. I don’t know why they wouldn’t now.”
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