Originally created 09/14/03

Palmetto State can't compete

ATHENS, Ga. - The gap is widening between the Georgia and South Carolina borders, and it has nothing to do with the banks of the Savannah River.

There is clearly a talent gap when it comes to football. It's a lot larger than it was two years ago when the South Carolina Gamecocks fancied themselves as a contenders in the SEC East and the Clemson Tigers considered themselves a factor in the ACC.

Twice this season the No. 8 Georgia Bulldogs dug their heels into the hearts of two proud Palmetto State programs and crushed the life out of them. Saturday's 31-7 dismissal of No. 25 South Carolina was as matter-of-fact as the season-opening 30-0 shellacking of Clemson.

"I didn't think that could happen," Georgia coach Mark Richt said modestly of the cumulative 61-7 embarrassment.

It's hard to imagine that just two years ago Georgia was mentioned in the same breath as rivaling its regional partners from South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech on the promise meter. Only one program so far has fulfilled its potential.

And while South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech have enjoyed their successes through the years against Georgia, they are no longer measuring sticks for the Bulldogs. In their last telling matchups, they've barely been obstacles.

In a six-game stretch dating back to the 2002 regular-season finale, Georgia has outscored its three closest region rivals 112-14. The only touchdowns yielded were fourth-quarter afterthoughts by Georgia Tech and South Carolina that could be written off as charity.

The Gamecocks might have strutted a little with a freshly minted national ranking courtesy of an overrated victory against Virginia last week, but they were no match at all for the Bulldogs.

"We would have had to play a perfect game to beat Georgia here today," said South Carolina coach Lou Holtz.

Georgia is playing on a different level now. It is ready to measure itself against the likes of Miami, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Southern Cal and Michigan. These regional matchups are starting to look more like quaint recruiting films than true competitions.

"We've got a little higher expectations on ourselves," said Georgia's stellar defensive end David Pollack. "Now we expect to win, and in the past we tried to find a way to win. This was just another team getting in our way. We want to win the SEC, and we want to win national championships and it started today."

While teams such as South Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech are busy trying to get themselves bowl eligible, Georgia is working on being championship eligible. It is a totally different realm.

You can just see it in the way Georgia's victims hang there heads in defeat. They know they've been thoroughly outclassed, even if they pretend to play it off as just "not our day," as Gamecocks defender George Gause did.

South Carolina should have been shut out Saturday the same way Clemson was two weeks ago. That was clear when, trailing 24-0 with 10 minutes remaining, Holtz tried to gain his players a limited measure of self-respect by attempting a meaningless field goal instead of trying for a touchdown. It was a concession of sorts, and the white flag of surrender clanked off the upright.

That South Carolina got its points in the waning minute of desperation time against a reserve defense meant more to the Bulldogs than it did to the Gamecocks. You could sense that seeing Pollack lecture a scrub for making a mistake as he came off the field.

"I'm not gonna lie to you, I wanted it," Pollack said of the shutout.

That's the kind of team Georgia is now. They are of championship stock, and they play that way. They are contenders. The South Carolinas and Clemsons are just pretenders.

"I've talked to them about swagger," Richt said of his players. "It's OK to have swagger, but you don't want to be too proud."

Regionally speaking, Georgia has plenty to be proud about. As the gap grows on the border, they look at football from a much wider national scale.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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