COLUMBIA - A year ago, Georgia players talked in vain about exploiting perceived "loopholes" in the South Carolina defense.
Saturday night, the Gamecocks might go to Sanford Stadium with a legitimate hole smack dab in the middle of the defensive unit.
Senior middle linebacker Kenny Harney suffered a sprained ankle late in the season opener against Boise State, and head coach Lou Holtz listed him as doubtful for Saturday's SEC showdown.
To make matters worse, free safety Deandre Eiland (sprained ankle) and backup defensive end Willie Sams (sprained knee) were also listed as doubtful by Holtz.
"Without Harney, Eiland and Sams, it already deteriorates what little depth that we have," Holtz said. "And losing Harney could be critical."
Very critical, says Harney's teammates.
"Harney is the defense in a way," said right side linebacker Kalimba Edwards. "He calls the plays. He is the rock, the backbone of our defense. As we all know, if you crush the spine you alter the mind.
"If Kenny Harney is not there, then it will be a totally different defense. It's hard to even think about playing this game without him."
It's not an unusual situation. Harney has incurred the label of oft-injured. He had significant shoulder surgery after his sophomore season and missed the final four games of the 2000 campaign after fracturing his fibula against Mississippi State.
"He's not a particularly quick healer," Holtz said. "Some people heal quicker, and some are more apt to be injured."
Without Harney, who posted six tackles and one sack against Boise State, the Gamecocks would be forced to start redshirt freshman Brian Brownlee. Holtz said the extent of Harney's injury will determine whether he will elevate true freshman linebacker Orus Lambert.
"His scholarship is paid for also," Edwards said of Brownlee, sending a business-like message to the redshirt freshman. But Edwards said he won't consider Harney a casualty until later in the week.
"From what he was telling me, I think he's going to try to fight through it," Edwards said. "This is a big game, and we're here to play football."
The worries about Harney's status added to Holtz's typically grim Monday mood. The veteran coach wasn't thrilled with his team's performance in the 32-13 victory over Boise State.
In particular, Holtz lamented his offense's lack of big-play potential and the reliance on converting too many third-and-long situations.
"I don't know if I've ever felt worse after a win, because I know the road ahead of us," Holtz said. "As bad as I felt looking at our film after the win, I felt even worse after looking at the University of Georgia. All the things that we had going for us last year, Georgia has going for them now."
South Carolina surprised Georgia with a 21-10 victory in Columbia last season, snapping a three-game losing streak to the Bulldogs. But the Gamecocks haven't won in Athens, Ga., since 1993.
Saturday will mark the 10th time Georgia and South Carolina have opened the SEC schedule against each other. Kickoff at Sanford Stadium is scheduled for 7:45 p.m., and the game will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.