ATHENS — The South Carolina-Georgia game is back in its familiar spot — leading off the Southeastern Conference schedule — and the stakes are as high as ever Saturday.
The sixth-ranked Gamecocks have a chance to establish themselves as a legitimate national championship contender, while the 11th-ranked Bulldogs cannot afford another loss if they want to have a realistic shot at climbing to No. 1.
"I've been looking forward to this one for a while," South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw said. "We all know the importance of this game."
This used to be an automatic win for Georgia.
For the first time in series history, South Carolina (1-0) has won three straight over the Bulldogs (0-1). Last year was especially grim for Georgia — a 35-7 loss in Columbia, when the game was played in Week 6 instead of its usual spot at the start of the SEC slate.
"It was embarrassing," cornerback Damian Swann said. "On national television, in front of their home crowd, they kind of put on a show. Now we're in position to do that in front of our fans. We need to go give our fans a show."
Georgia opened with a 38-35 loss at Clemson, costing the Bulldogs six spots in the Associated Press rankings. But it was hardly a fatal blow to their championship hopes, either nationally or in the SEC. In fact, they bounced back to win the East Division the past two years after losses to South Carolina, and they nearly earned a shot at the national title last season despite the four-touchdown loss to the Gamecocks.
But the Bulldogs know their margin for error is much thinner this season, given what remains on their schedule: No. 9 LSU in late September and the Cocktail Party game against No. 12 Florida in early November.
"We don't want to get behind the eight-ball again," receiver Michael Bennett said.
If the Gamecocks get past Georgia, it will mean a huge advantage in the SEC East. They'll gain a tiebreaker edge over the Bulldogs, and they can look forward to a favorable conference schedule that includes only one more ranked opponent — Florida — and that's at home on Nov. 16.
"We're going to try to win the division. This is a crucial game there," coach Steve Spurrier said. "All of our players know what our goals are, so that is not something we talk about too much."
With so much on the line, here's five things to watch for in the South Carolina-Georgia game:
WHERE'S CLOWNEY? After an offseason of almost endless hype, Jadeveon Clowney was barely a factor in the season-opening victory over North Carolina. The defensive end was held to three tackles and three quarterback hurries, a lackluster performance for someone being touted as a leading Heisman contender. More troubling, he seemed to run out of gas on a sweltering night in Columbia, raising questions about his conditioning. Clowney says he was slowed by a stomach virus and isn't concerned about the numbers he puts up as long as South Carolina wins. Georgia will try to keep him out of the picture again by running plays the opposite way or assigning extra blockers to his side.
MURRAY'S BURDEN: Aaron Murray has put up some stellar passing numbers at Georgia, but his record against quality opponents ain't one of them. The senior's record dropped to 1-6 against top 10 teams with the loss to Clemson, adding to his reputation as a quarterback who can't win the big game. Murray threw for 323 yards against the Tigers, the eighth 300-yard game of his career. He also had two critical turnovers, leading to renewed grumbling among the fan base.
THE HEAD BALL COACH: There's no school Spurrier enjoys beating more than Georgia, and he clearly knows how to convey that animosity to his players. His coaching record against the Bulldogs is a sterling 15-5, which included total domination during his time at Florida (11 wins in 12 years). Now, he's guided South Carolina to the upper hand in a series once dominated by the Bulldogs. Spurrier says he doesn't feel the same level of hate coming from the red and black. Hogwash. He's as despised as ever in Athens. "
GEORGIA D: The Bulldogs had no luck slowing Clemson's fast-paced offense. They'll be looking for a better performance against a South Carolina team that seeks to control the clock and wear down teams with a powerful running game. Georgia will be bolstered by the return of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, perhaps the most talented player on the defensive side. He was suspended from the Clemson game for a violation of team rules.
RUNNING BACK Us: Both team have quality backs who can dominate the game. Georgia sophomore Todd Gurley rushed for a career-best 154 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson, including a 75-yard scoring play. When he needs a breather, the Bulldogs turn to another talented sophomore, Keith Marshall. South Carolina counters with a sophomore stud of its own, Mike Davis. He ran for 115 yards on just 12 carries against the Tar Heels, also ripping off a 75-yard TD.