Originally created 09/12/98

Border rivals head in different directions

Flash bulbs popped, cheers hung endlessly and floodlights filled the cool autumn air.

To the skinny sophomore quarterback, the one who performed so magnificently in just his second collegiate start, the scene appeared just the opening act of a brilliant play.

"To me, in my first really big game, it was just playing another team," South Carolina signal-caller Anthony Wright said. "Now that I'm much older and wiser, I understand that it's a very important game."

Wright improved to 2-0 in his career by defeating Georgia 23-14 on that memorable September night in Columbia two seasons ago, and it appeared the Gamecocks finally were uncovering the signs that led out of mediocrity.

They were 2-0 and staring at a second-consecutive bowl bid for just the third time in history.

"That was a special night," then-freshman fullback Steve Mixon said. "But that was two years ago. Things have changed so much since two years ago."

They certainly have. At the time, one could have surmised that South Carolina was beginning to catch up with and pass Georgia.

In the three-plus years leading up to and including that game, Georgia and South Carolina each fashioned rather mediocre 17-18-1 records. They split the previous four meetings, with South Carolina capturing the '93 and '96 games and Georgia taking the two in between.

Both were struggling, but South Carolina seemed to turn the corner with that victory, while Georgia seemed a lengthy distance from rekindling its glorious history.

But what unfurled was just the opposite. South Carolina has failed to improve on its record, going 10-11 since. Georgia, however, produced a remarkable turnaround. Since that disappointing defeat, the Bulldogs are 16-6, including an Outback Bowl victory against Wisconsin last January.

"It's one of those age-old questions, I guess," South Carolina coach Brad Scott said. "All I can tell you is that we're working week to week to improve our football team. All I can do is speak for our program, and I think we are making improvements in our program here. Our job is to build a winner at South Carolina, and there really hasn't been one yet."

One need only glance at their meeting last fall to determine how far apart these border rivals have grown.

Scott had declared his '97 Gamecocks the best in his four-year tenure in Columbia, although a tenuous two-point win against Central Florida in the opener left Gamecock faithful searching for Scott's evidence.

Jim Donnan, meanwhile, was attempting to erase the memories of a disappointing 5-6 first season and to begin re-establishing Georgia's tradition.

It took precious few moments to determine the respective coaches' positions on the progression curve.

Georgia stormed out to a 31-6 lead by halftime, rolled up 447 yards of offense and cruised to a 31-15 victory.

"We needed to establish some credibility in our league and we did that with that win," Donnan said. "At that point, we didn't know that we were going to continue to improve the way we did."

Riding that crest of confidence, the Bulldogs captured four of their next five games heading into an early November matchup with No. 6 Florida.

Trailing 17-14, the Dogs responded with 23 consecutive points for a surprising 37-17 win, their first against the Gators since '89.

It culminated in a 10-2 season, an Outback Bowl and a No. 10 ranking in the final top 25.

USC, however, crumbled under that embarrassment and tumbled to a 5-6 record.

"Beating a top team," Scott said, "that's something we've not been able to accomplish here."

It's hard to attribute the differences to athletic facilities. Williams-Brice Stadium has received nearly $24 million in upgrades during the last three years, according to Gamecocks athletic director Mike McGee. An additional $5 million has been used to improve USC's other football facilities.

And fans are purchasing tickets faster than any time in recent memory, selling out the entire season before the opener each of the last two years.

If one holds Scott and Donnan as relative equals in terms of coaching, that leaves one fundamental variable separating the two: talent.

"I don't think the talent's better in Georgia than South Carolina," Scott said of high school athletes. "But you don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that (Georgia's population) 6.5 Ãsic´ million people versus (South Carolina's population) 3.5 Ãsic´ million people gives you close to two Ãsic´ times as many high schools, which gives you close to two times as many at-bats in recruiting."

That's obvious, considering the Bulldogs get close to 77 percent of their players from in-state, while the Gamecocks have barely more than half of their players from South Carolina.

In Champ Bailey, Matt Stinchcomb and Chris Terry, the Bulldogs potentially possess three All-Americans. And don't think Quincy Carter is too far away.

USC, meanwhile doesn't have a potential All-American in sight.

With a couple of top-10 recruiting classes the last two years, the Bulldogs are threatening to expand the gap even further.

"As I look at our base and foundation that was built," USC athletic director Mike McGee said, "I feel real good. While we may be a step behind Georgia at this point, within a year or two, we have an opportunity.

"The proof's still in the pudding."

Gamecock fans are awaiting its appearance on the field.


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