COLUMBIA - There is a new catch phrase going around the football facilities in Athens, Ga., as the clock ticks down to the SEC opener.
As in focused on South Carolina. Focused on a game with critical consequences. Focused on a team that the Georgia Bulldogs did not take seriously enough last year. Focused on payback for a humbling 21-10 defeat.
It's a catch phrase that already worked itself into the weekly dosage of dour doubts from South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz: "I'm not sure we can beat a focused Georgia team."
Judging from the reckless vocabulary that littered the Gamecocks' bulletin board before last year's matchup at Williams Brice Stadium, the Bulldogs were anything but focused in 2000. They scoffed at Gamecock fans who ripped down the goalposts after the team beat New Mexico State to bury a 21-game losing streak the previous week. They scoffed at the prospect of losing themselves.
Quite frankly, who could blame their overconfidence? It's not as though the Gamecocks had put up much of a fight in the previous three confrontations with the Bulldogs.
"It's not an insult when they say, 'How did we lose to them?' For us to come out with a win, it's understandably shocking to them," South Carolina linebacker Kalimba Edwards said. "They dominated us the year before. They dominated us the year before that. Didn't they dominate us the year before that? When you dominate a team three or four years in a row, why not expect to beat them?
"I'm sure they'll come into this game with a different frame of mind."
That's a given. Just about everything is new at Georgia this season, from the head coach to the quarterback to the attitude. Universal expectations aren't weighing down the Bulldogs, with prouder predictions hanging over the shoulders of players at Georgia Tech and South Carolina instead.
"Let them have all the press," Georgia receiver Terrence Edwards said.
But attitudes have changed in Columbia as well. There was a seismic shift in Gamecock bravado last September.
"Coming off an 0-11 year and then beating Georgia, it propelled us to a positive mind state," Edwards said. "We need this game to maybe propel us again, but our mind state is different now. We have the confidence, and we know we can compete with them. Last year was kind of a hopeful thing. When it propels us this time it will be different."
Both teams have a lot at stake Saturday night. Georgia is upbeat about its direction after a feel-good, era-opening victory over Arkansas State. Beating South Carolina would prove they are to be reckoned with in the SEC East.
South Carolina still has a few things to prove itself. The Gamecocks need to send a message that last year's success wasn't a fluke. And they need to prove that they can win a big game on the road - a laurel that eluded them last year at Alabama, Florida and Clemson. This year's road ledger includes challenges at Georgia, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Tennessee. To be the kind of team South Carolina thinks it is, it has to step over that hurdle.
"If we can get this one down, maybe it will start something," Edwards said. "You have to win period ... but winning on the road is a little different. It shows your true dominance."
Whether paying it back or paying it forward, this interstate rivalry has never been in sharper focus.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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