We’ve come to expect some kind of decisive statement to be made in what has become the annual litmus test in the Southeastern Conference. Winner always gets the leg up on a potentially big season. Loser typically struggles the rest of the way.
But South Carolina’s 45-42 victory between the hedges left nothing more clearly defined than when it started.
Yes, the Gamecocks are 2-0 and have the pole position in their quest to get back to the SEC Championship game.
And without a doubt the Bulldogs are 0-2 and staring up at the rest of the conference again on the heels of a losing season.
But after this show, it’s hard to determine which team seems more capable of running the table the next 10 weeks.
The Gamecocks were not better than the Bulldogs, as expected. Just victorious, which for now is all that counts.
“Georgia outplayed us,” said South Carolina head ball coach Steve Spurrier, whose team gamely capitalized on three turnovers turned into touchdowns, a brilliant fake punt and a missed Georgia field goal, “but somehow or other we won the game. … Maybe the football gods are smiling on us.”
While Spurrier was more relieved than happy with the outcome, his counterpart with the job security issues had reason to be upbeat even in defeat.
“I’m sick that we didn’t win but optimistic about the potential of this football team,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt.
If Saturday’s game was a referendum on the future of Richt and his program, it’s too close to call. Certainly, it’s too early.
For most of the game, it was Georgia that was the controlling force. The Bulldogs gained more yards, put together many more drives that crossed midfield and mostly limited the damage defensively of South Carolina’s highly touted stars.
But the mistakes Georgia made were catastrophic, starting with the fake punt that South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram took 68 yards for a touchdown and prompted the usually stoic Richt to fling his play cards 20 yards onto the field and his head-set on the ground.
“I wanted to show people that I can get mad,” he said. “If I had a visor, I’d have thrown it.”
But unlike the coach in that one emotional outburst, Georgia didn’t overreact to adversity that came and came and came again. Every time they coughed up a devastating play, the Bulldogs came back until it was too late to do it one last time.
“I feel like last year we probably would have bowed down,” safety Bacarri Rambo said. “But this year we’ve still got that fight and everybody still wants to win. We’re not gonna let nobody tell us that we can’t win the game. I respect that about these guys. The true fans saw that we had that fight in us and they were still cheering us on when we were walking in.”
Richt saw that as well, and it left him more encouraged about the future than discouraged about the present.
“As a head coach I saw a lot of really great ingredients on this football team,” Richt said. “I saw guys making good plays and I saw guys being resilient after all kinds of adverse things happened to them.
“We will get better exponentially,” he added. “I think this is going to be a very good football team before it’s over. I think the Eastern division is going to be decided way down the road. Everybody’s going to have to wait to see what happens.”
South Carolina might evolve into the dominating team that its talent indicates it is capable of being. It’s playmakers made plays Saturday when they had too – Marcus Lattimore grinding out yards as the game wore on and Alshon Jeffery making a few key plays at the precise moments South Carolina needed them most.
But the defense, for all of its decisive moments, was pushed around, as well. And quarterback Stephen Garcia didn’t inspire total confidence with his hot and cold play.
Georgia, for all its faults, showed its own potential – certainly more than it did a week earlier against Boise State.
Freshman Isaiah Crowell had the kind of breakout performance that Lattimore did a year ago in Columbia against the Bulldogs, rushing for 118 yards and two touchdowns and exhibiting skills that put him in company with his Gamecocks rushing rival.
And Aaron Murray showed the resilience to shake off errors and move the Bulldogs offense even without a superstar receiver like A.J. Green.
“I’m encouraged that there’s a bunch of young guys for our football team out there making plays and fighting their tails off,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. “It’s a tough lesson to learn when you lose. The thing we have to do as coaches is keep them fighting. They believe in us and believe in coach Richt and believe we’ve got a chance to be pretty good. We’ve got to overcome an 0-2 start and the backlash we’ll have of that. But we’ve got a chance to be pretty good this year.”
Despite the two losses to two highly ranked opponents, these Bulldogs don’t betray any sense of falling into the same funk that sent them spiraling on a four-game skid last September.
“There’s still room for us to do what we want to do,” said cornerback Brandon Boykin, who is fast becoming the most versatile three-way threat the Bulldogs have. “People will talk about the two losses, but we know what we can do.”
Said Rambo: “I’m really disappointed right now, but it’s not over with. We can turn this thing around and still win the next 10 games and hopefully be in the SEC Championship.”
Richt senses the same resolve and knows there’s a lot of football left before the verdict is in on his future.
“We’ve got the right stuff in my opinion,” Richt said.
Maybe in a weird way, both South Carolina and Georgia walked away with wins from this encounter.
They won’t meet again on the field this year, but for once in this series this battle seems far from over.