ATHENS, Ga. - Normally, Georgia is far too consumed with Tennessee and Florida to worry about South Carolina.
The past three years in particular, the Bulldogs were more preoccupied with winning Southeastern Conference and national titles. Fans viewed the South Carolina game as a nice opportunity to kick off the SEC slate with an easy win against the Gamecocks, who were slogging through the most gruesome slump in their 109-year history.
This year, Georgia isn't worried about the Volunteers and Gators - at least not yet. For now, the Bulldogs' game of the year is against the Gamecocks.
"It's a big game," said junior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb, whose Bulldogs play host to South Carolina on Saturday night at Sanford Stadium (7:45, ESPN). "It's a good opponent; very talented. Could be a momentum-builder; could be a momentum-breaker. There's a great amount of poignance to this game."
Most of the poignance derives from the most poignant moment of 2000 for both teams. Georgia, ranked No. 9 at the time, strutted to Columbia expecting an easy victory but was ambushed 21-10 by a team that had snapped a 21-game losing streak the week before.
A lot has happened at Georgia since: Coach Jim Donnan was fired after his team failed to meet expectations in a 7-4 regular season, and Mark Richt was hired after a 15-year career as a Florida State assistant.
While Georgia was undergoing turmoil, South Carolina was becoming a contender under coach Lou Holtz. The No. 21 Gamecocks (1-0) completed the best turnaround in SEC history with an 8-4 record, and they were widely picked to finish ahead of the Bulldogs in the SEC East.
Making matters more disorienting for the Bulldogs: South Carolina, a 32-13 winner against Boise State last week, is favored to win Saturday's game.
Still, Georgia's Terrence Edwards said the underdog role isn't all that bad. And it's not as though the No. 25 Bulldogs have tumbled into obscurity after last year's disappointment.
"I was happy when we weren't ranked before the season, so everybody isn't talking about Georgia all the time," said Edwards, a former Washington County star whose team beat Arkansas State 45-17 last week. "Oklahoma was No. (19) before last season, and now they're the national champions."
At his weekly press conference Tuesday, Richt didn't try to diminish the importance of Saturday's tilt. If the Bulldogs beat the Gamecocks, a 4-0 start is a distinct possibility: Georgia plays host to Houston (Sept. 15) and Arkansas (Sept. 29) before traveling to Tennessee on Oct. 6.
"The winner of the game is going to be sitting in pretty good shape, as far as confidence level and as far as having a chance to make a run for the conference," Richt said. "It doesn't knock you out of it, of course, because there's a couple other big games along the way. But it could get you in pretty good position to have a shot at it."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
Georgia leads the all-time series with South Carolina 39-11-2, but the Bulldogs' three-year dominance of the Gamecocks ended in last year's 21-10 loss at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. In the past six meetings, Georgia has outscored South Carolina 138-94. A look at the rivalry since 1995:
1995/Athens/Georgia 42, South Carolina 23
1996/Columbia/South Carolina 23, Georgia 14
1997/Athens/Georgia 31, South Carolina 15
1998/Columbia/Georgia 17, South Carolina 3
1999/Athens/Georgia 24, South Carolina 9
2000/Columbia/South Carolina 21, Georgia 10
What they're saying
"The winner of the game is going to be sitting in pretty good shape, as far as confidence level and as far as having a chance to make a run for the conference." - Mark Richt, Georgia coach
"It's a big game ... Could be a momentum-builder; could be a momentum-breaker. There's a great amount of poignance to this game." - Georgia offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb
"I'm sure they'll come into this game with a different frame of mind." - South Carolina linebacker Kalimba Edwards