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September 7, 2011

Blog: Finally, the 2011 season begins



Thankfully, the 2011 college football season starts for South Carolina on Saturday.

Oh, that game against a Conference USA opponent in Charlotte last Saturday night? Just a preliminary bout. Undercard stuff.

Now we get to the real deal.

And USC jumps into the fray without a hint of a quarterback controversy, which is a good thing for the Gamecocks.

A week ago, we were all wondering aloud who would be the QB against East Carolina. No such questions this week. With the mind games over, Stephen Garcia, as expected, has a firm grasp of the reins after helping direct the rousing comeback from the first-half 17-0 deficit.

Tuesday, a national radio sports talk host contended that Garcia had "nine lives." Difficult to argue with that. He's survived because he has always given USC the best chance to win, and that holds true today.

But Garcia's keen ability to overcome adversity has been well-chronicled. The important thing is the quarterback question has been settled, for at least one week, anyway.

However, in my opinion, Garcia will remain the starter for the remainder of the 2011 season.

The best thing Steve Spurrier did after the close call against East Carolina was quickly name Garcia the starter for Week 2. Over and done with.

Spurrier knows the fifth-year senior's extensive experience is exactly what USC will needs when it plays this weekend in front of 80,000-plus hostile fans.

Considering what's at stake, you could argue this weekend's road clash at Georgia (4:30 p.m., ESPN) is the biggest game of Spurrier's seven-year tenure at USC.

A loss in Athens would be a major roadblock to returning to Atlanta since Georgia has an easier schedule the rest of the way, for one pivotal reason: The Bulldogs get to face Ole Miss, while USC has to travel to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas.

Moreover, Georgia gets to play Mississippi State at home. USC must go to Starkville and endure the thousands of cowbells for 60 minutes.

Translation: The winner of Saturday's Sanford Stadium showdown will likely win the SEC East and head to Atlanta for the conference championship game.

If that wasn't enough, the intense speculation surrounding Mark Richt's job security adds another layer of intrigue to this game. Richt was already on the semi-warm seat when the season started because of Georgia's 14-12 record through 2009-10, but his team's sluggish performance throughout a 35-21 loss to Boise State in what amounted to a home game for the Bulldogs has turned the seat white-hot.

And it was that conjecture that produced a testy exchange between Richt and reporters on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. According to a transcript, Richt was first asked if he viewed the game with USC as "pivotal for you and your program."

"I view it as a very important game," Richt replied without saying anything more

But a few minutes later, another daring reporter asked Richt if he felt USC was "a must-win game" for himself and Georgia. Here's how the next few moments transpired:

Richt: "Didn't I just say it was a really important game?"

Reporters: "But is it a must-win?"

Richt: "I think it's a really important game. You want to ask me again? Because you can, and I'll answer it the same way."

Before the season started, many journalists on the Georgia beat wrote that Richt couldn't afford to start 0-2 if he wanted to keep his job beyond 2011. Of course, that's silly because the Bulldogs could be favored in most of their final 10 games.

Remember 2007? The gloom-and-doomers were out in force after USC's 16-12 win in Athens, but Georgia won nine of its final 10 regular-season games, trounced Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl and finished No. 2 in the national polls.

Saturday marks just the third time since USC joined the SEC in 1992 that Georgia enters the annual early-season border battle without a win on its resume and at least one loss in the column. The other years were 1996 (loss to Southern Miss) and 2009 (road loss at Oklahoma State). USC is 1-1 in those games.

What are the three keys for beating Georgia? First, USC must exploit its advantage along the defensive front. By all accounts, Georgia's offense line played poorly in the Boise State loss, especially on third down. Six sacks? Far too many. Granted, Boise has a very talented D-line, but so do the Gamecocks. Winning that battle is essential.

Second, USC must exploit Georgia's youth at the offensive skill positions. You could argue that Georgia's best players are running back (Isaiah Crowell) and wide receiver (Malcolm Mitchell), but they are true freshmen. Inexperience is not advantageous in the SEC. Richt still lists Richard Samuel as the starter at running back largely because Crowell hasn't fully grasped the pass-protection schemes. Will USC blitz more when Crowell is in the game? Don't discount it.

Third, the USC offense must find ways to take what the Georgia defense gives it. If the Bulldogs put eight or nine defenders in the box to contain Marcus Lattimore after the sophomore embarrassed them last year in his first SEC game, Garcia must soften them up by connecting on throws with Alshon Jeffery and the other receivers until Georgia backs off.

Then Lattimore can go to work. Inside-zone? Keep running it until Georgia proves it can stop it. Couldn't last year.

If the Gamecocks are able to able to accomplish all three of those keys, they'll win the game and walk out of Sanford Stadium with a 2-0 record. In the process, they'll stamp themselves as the new top dog in the SEC East (yes, that includes Florida) and the front-runner to capture a second straight divisional crown.

Opportunity beckons. Will USC seize it?

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