Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Area's Big Four colleges will have plenty of chances to leave their mark

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Marcus Lattimore expected to come back this year for Gamecocks.
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Big-time college football kicks off in four days and the most pressing collegiate issue around here is what to name a school that doesn’t even have a football program.

Never before has our border community been so unified in contempt this close to kickoff. Bulldogs, Gamecocks, Tigers and Yellow Jackets stand with Jaguars in opposition to Despicable Him and his minions – a.k.a. Ricardo Azziz and the Board of Regents – who arrogantly delivered such a reprehensible new name for Augusta’s merged universities.

Perhaps Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will join Regent University founder Pat Robertson in suing Azziz for stealing the lead character’s name (Gru) from the animated movie about a super villain who steals the moon. It could be based on the grounds of giving “despicable” a bad name.

My new favorite suggestion, by the way, for the merged campuses is the Centers for Azziz Control.

While that political taffy-pull rages on, the battle for supremacy in the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences gets started this week (with meaningful games on deck for Thursday, Saturday and Monday) and all four regional teams have a significant stake in the outcome.

While I have no clue how this university of Augusta fiasco will resolve, here are my semi-educated guesses on how things will work out for the Big Four in 2012:

GEORGIA: There are weaknesses, question marks and trap games to be sure, but the Bulldogs schedule is just too darn favorable to ignore.

The absence of Alabama, LSU and Arkansas on Georgia’s crossover SEC schedule places a huge sense of urgency to get it done this season with a veteran quarterback and a stout defense easily capable of winning the division and playing for the conference’s reserved space in the BCS title game.

Sure there are concerns about the offensive line, kicking game, early suspensions in the defensive backfield and how the new running back committee will do without Isaiah Crowell’s talent, but with a defense as good as Georgia’s was last year and a gifted quarterback like Aaron Murray, the Bulldogs can beat any and every team on its schedule.

The key will be getting past an early trap at Missouri, avoiding the critical mistakes that have killed it against South Carolina recently and beating Florida back-to-back for the first time since Ronald Reagan passed the baton to the elder George Bush.

Win two of those three games and Bulldogs can go 11-1 and play the West champion for a trip to Miami. It’s in their hands. Don’t fumble it.

SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks have the two big ingredients to be a champion – a great running back and a great defense. Too bad they don’t have Georgia’s schedule.

With a road trip to LSU and a home date with nemesis Arkansas, South Carolina already has two strikes against it that Georgia doesn’t. That makes it very easy to gauge what is essential for the Gamecocks to make it back to Atlanta – they HAVE to beat Georgia in Williams Brice to secure the tiebreaker, HAVE to beat Arkansas and probably HAVE to win again in the Swamp.

With a healthy Marcus Lattimore and a competent Connor Shaw at quarterback, the offense should be more productive and able to score more than its championship-caliber defense will allow. The confidence gained with consistent success against rivals Georgia, Florida and Clemson could create another 10-win regular season.

Whether that’s good enough to win the East depends on the Bulldogs again.

CLEMSON: I’ll say it again – the 2011 Tigers were college football’s girl with the curl. When they were good they were very good indeed, but when they were bad they were horrid.

After its electrifying offense carried it to 8-0 and No. 6 in the country, national title visions danced in Clemson’s head. Before it was over, the program’s first ACC championship in 20 years was buried in between a crushing third consecutive loss to rival South Carolina and a demoralizing 70-33 (not really that close) Orange Bowl undressing by West Virginia.

The four late-season losses exposed all sorts of weaknesses on the Tiger front lines, and former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele paid for the bowl debacle with his job.

While Clemson still is lean on the fronts, it still has an abundance of offensive skill for Chad Morris to work with. After missing the tone-setting opener in the Georgia Dome against Auburn while serving a two-game suspension for drug possession charges, superstar playmaker Sammy Watkins will be back in time to hook up with quarterback Tajh Boyd for the critical one-month stretch that includes Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech (after a bye week).

The Seminoles are everybody’s favorite, but if the Tigers can sweep the Techs, a 9-3 regular season and ACC title repeat is reasonable.

GEORGIA TECH: At least we won’t have to wait to find out if the Yellow Jackets are contenders or pretenders this year.

Last fall, Georgia Tech raced to a 6-0 start and climbed to No. 12 in the polls against a weak early schedule.

Then came a shocking road loss to Virginia and the Jackets unraveled, losing five of their last seven including a seventh consecutive bowl defeat.

There won’t be any questions about Paul Johnson’s team at midseason this year, with all of the toughest games in that opening stretch bracketed by road trips at reigning conference division winners Virginia Tech and Clemson.

With improved defense and sustained rushing dominance, the Jackets can run to a 9-3 regular season record and the ACC’s Coastal Division title if they can hold serve at home against Virginia and Miami.


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