Whatever determining factor decides what constitutes a “rivalry” and what doesn’t, it’s about time that South Carolina earned its stripes as an official rival of the Georgia Bulldogs.
“It’s hard for Georgia to really get mad at South Carolina,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. “They’ve got so many teams they’re mad at or are mad at them, it’s hard to get another big rival for Georgia. It’s hard for them to have too many enemies. We still haven’t beaten them enough for them to circle South Carolina and say that’s a team we’ve got to beat.”
Consider it circled. Saturday’s matchup is bigger for Georgia than it is for South Carolina after three consecutive losses in the series and already sitting at 0-1 against the Palmetto State this season. The annual sense of urgency has reached rivalry stage.
“It’s a big game for both teams,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
The subject of what qualifies as a rival and what doesn’t surfaced this week when Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly tried to downplay the long-standing relationship between the Irish and Michigan. His diminishing statement followed the school’s new party line since it’s going to have to drop some traditional rivals in order to add five games each season against its new Atlantic Coast Conference partners.
Public outcry, however, forced Kelly to backtrack from his earlier comments. Perception is reality.
Keeping with the theme, Spurrier said he isn’t sure his program has done enough to make it into the crowded field of Georgia rivals – a list that annually includes the likes of Georgia Tech, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee. Spurrier speaks with authority as the former primary antagonist in a rivalry game nobody argues is a hate-filled affair so big it gets played at a neutral site.
“I don’t think there’s nearly as much hate between Georgia and South Carolina as there is between Georgia and Florida,” Spurrier said. “You’d have to ask their fans all that. Georgia’s beaten us so many times and just recently we’ve been able to beat them a few times. But Georgia has so many rivals, it’s difficult for them to have a big rivalry game every week. I think they’ve got as many as anybody in the country. You can have only so many. We don’t have that many down here because we haven’t beaten enough people to have big rivalry-type games.”
It’s a fair enough point, because it takes both sides to make a true rivalry. It takes mutual respect.
For many years, that wasn’t the case in this border series. South Carolina has always considered Georgia its chief rival in the SEC East since joining the league in 1992, but the feeling hasn’t always been reciprocated.
Prior to the current unprecedented three-game winning streak against the Bulldogs, the Gamecocks had beaten Georgia only five times in the first 18 years after joining the SEC. Before that, South Carolina had won only nine times in 44 previous meetings dating back to 1894 – most of that success coming in occasional pairs (1903-04, 1958-59, 1978-79 and 1988-89) with long losing spells in between.
Only five seasons since 1957 have the Bulldogs and Gamecocks not met each other on the field – which would qualify as pretty close to annual for more than a half century.
SPURRIER HAS CHANGED the dynamics of the series as the Gamecocks have become annual contenders in the SEC East. His Gamecocks are 4-4 against the Bulldogs, and on Saturday the senior class has the chance to complete a historic sweep. That certainly has raised the meaningful stakes on the Georgia side.
“It stinks that we haven’t beaten them,” Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray said.
Adding to the rival factor is the amount of Georgia born-and-bred players on the South Carolina roster – 27 including quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Mike Davis. That automatically makes it an emotional game.
“We have a lot of guys from Georgia so we know the importance of this game,” said Shaw, from Flowery Branch, Ga. “We were fortunate the last two years to beat them we just didn’t finish down the stretch (of the season). All our guys are looking forward to going to Athens and having another shot at them.”
Said Lithonia’s Davis: “I can’t wait. I already have guys calling me telling me they’re going to be there. So I’m showing all of my emotions that game.”
Spurrier believes the sheer volume of talent that is exported from Georgia is what makes the Bulldogs’ list of rivals so plentiful.
“The state of Georgia, I believe, has produced more Division I players than any state in the country,” Spurrier said. “They passed Florida two or three years ago. So there’s so many players in greater-Atlanta and the state of Georgia, if we can go in there and get our share ... that’s going to help us. And I think it helps us when we play Georgia.”
THAT’S ONE OF the things that’s fueled Georgia’s border rivalries with Florida, Auburn and Tennessee and maintained a relative competitive balance. Now that South Carolina has joined the annual battle for division supremacy in the SEC East, it gives them equal footing with the others.
It also gives the rivalry greater value than the in-state series with Georgia Tech. Ask Georgia players every year how they feel about the “clean, old-fashioned hate” with the Yellow Jackets, and they usually say all the diplomatic things. But the truth is the Bulldogs don’t consider the Ramblin’ Wreck much of a rival after beating them 11 of the last 12 years and 18 of the last 22.
With no conference value, it’s hard to get too fired up when the biggest motivation is not to be embarrassed losing to a program Georgia considers inferior.
That’s not the case anymore with South Carolina – where mutual respect has built a real rivalry.
“We had Willie Nelson’s Georgia on My Mind playing (Monday),” Spurrier said. “Most of our players thought it was Ray Charles, but it was Willie Nelson. We always play that every week we play Georgia, we always put that music on during stretching. So that’s all we are trying to do, get Georgia on our mind, the plays we think that’ll give us a chance to beat them. They are a good team, they’ll be ready for us.”
There aren’t any suitable iconic songs for the Bulldogs to play in return. But rest assured, in their minds they’ve gone to Carolina.