No rivalry in area tops Bulldogs vs. Gamecocks

ATHENS, Ga. --- Ten years of regional experience has shown it's likely the following declaration will universally criticized, but here it comes anyway.

Georgia vs. South Carolina is the best rivalry game in these parts.

Not the most passionate. Not the one that will cause a year of sleepless nights to the losing side. Not the one fans would trade 11 other losses just to have this one victory to cherish for 12 months at the water cooler.

It is simply the best rivalry game year in and year out, hands down.

Georgia-Florida? Please.

Georgia-Georgia Tech? Hit or miss.

South Carolina-Clemson? Mostly miss.

You can't swing Uga's leash without hitting a Bulldog rival, so there are a lot of options to choose from. Speaking from a completely non-partisan perspective, Bulldogs vs. Gamecocks is the one rivalry game that annually delivers more than any other. And coming regularly as it does at the top of the order in the Southeastern Conference, the game always seems to measure up to the stakes.

No reason to expect differently on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"I would have to imagine another knockdown dragout in Columbia," said Georgia coach Mark Richt.

Of course he would imagine that. That's been the reality ever since Richt arrived in Athens 10 years ago. Don't let the 7-2 record he holds against the Gamecocks fool you.

Only twice since 2001 has a Georgia-South Carolina game been decided by more than one touchdown. More often than not, the winners and losers walk away knowing full well it could have (and sometimes should have) been the other way around.

Take last year, when a missed extra point conspired to force the Gamecocks into a failed fourth-down play on the Georgia doorstep in the closing seconds.

The last time Georgia visited Williams-Brice, the Bulldogs needed two red-zone turnovers in the final quarter to preserve a 14-7 win.

How about 2007, when the Bulldogs failed to puncture the end zone and were left to suffer the consequences of a 16-12 defeat that ultimately cost them a national championship shot (they finished the season No. 3).

Two failed conversion attempts doomed the Gamecocks 17-15 in Spurrier's much-anticipated return to Sanford Stadium in 2005.

Georgia rallied from a 16-point deficit and needed two late turnovers to sneak out of Columbia with a 20-16 win in 2004.

South Carolina welcomed the Richt era with a late Phil Petty touchdown pass and a 14-9 win in 2001.

Most memorably, there was the epic David Pollack game in 2002, when the previously unheralded defensive lineman stole a touchdown out of the quarterback's arms in the fourth quarter and the Bulldogs held on by recovering a fumbled pitch near the Georgia goal-line in the closing seconds.

Something clutch always seems to define this game more often than any other.

"It comes down to the wire," said Richt. "I think there were two times where there was a little bit of separation, but every other game it seems like it's within seven points and usually down to last second where somebody has to do something heroic. I remember when (David) Pollack had a couple of heroic plays to win the first time that I was there. ... We've had some last second plays that have been the difference in winning and losing."

Sadly for South Carolina, those key plays have tended to conspire against them more often than not. Spurrier -- who calls Georgia "probably our biggest rival, especially in the SEC East" -- doesn't care to grouse about cursed fate.

"Prior games have no bearing on this one," he said.

This game, however, has a lot of bearing on the rest of the season.

Both teams are ranked near the tail end of the top 25 poll after impressive 2010 debuts against lesser opponents stoked the enthusiasm in both camps. Saturday's matchup looms even larger after presumptive SEC East favorite Florida looked underwhelming in its own opener.

"Definitely this year is more wide open and we need to take care of business to get to Atlanta," said Georgia kicker Blair Walsh of the conference championship game.

That notion gets no argument from Spurrier.

"It's a crucial game because it's within our eastern division," he said. " If you have hopes of winning the division, you have to beat divisional teams. This is one of those games."

That's why this game is so consistently inspiring. It comes at a time when both teams are fresh and healthy and have everything still to play for.

It might not get the respect on the hierarchy of Georgia's rivals or invite the venom of an in-state opponent, but this border war is always the linchpin to a season's success or failure.

No doubt, Saturday will deliver the drama as usual. No other regional showdown can offer the same degree of certainty.

Saturday's games

- Georgia Tech at Kansas, Noon (Fox Sports South)

- Presbyterian at Clemson, 3:30 p.m. (No TV)

- Georgia Southern at Navy, 3:30 (CBS College Sports)

SEC Showdown

WHO: No. 22 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina

WHEN: Noon Saturday

TV: ESPN2

WHERE: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia

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