Gamecocks are among season's early surprises

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The view here from the midpoint of the 2009 college season is a little surprising.

Georgia is a riddle. Clemson is a muddle. South Carolina and Georgia Tech are in the middle of conference races.

While some of it is vaguely familiar, it's certainly not what anyone would have guessed this deep into the season.

So here are some midseason report cards for the regional representatives of the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences. Final grades are subject to significant change.

SOUTH CAROLINA (5-1, 2-1 SEC)

Grade: A-minus. That the Gamecocks have made it this far with a 5-1 record, a rare win over a top-5 program and a place in the national polls is better than any reasonable person could have anticipated. That they remain a truly underwhelming offensive team in spite of Stephen Garcia gives serious pause for the road ahead.

South Carolina is a failed extra point and a fourth-down incompletion at Georgia away from potentially being undefeated. But they're also a dropped pass by N.C. State in the end zone and a failed two-point conversion by Kentucky from perhaps being hopelessly mediocre.

The second half of the season, however, has always defined the Gamecocks. Nobody can forget that two years ago they were 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the nation before losing six in a row and failing to go to a bowl.

With Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Clemson still in front of them, it remains impossible to predict where this Gamecocks team will end up. But with a typically solid defense they deserve full credit for getting to this place where the rest of the season provides opportunity instead of the obligatory playing out the string.

GEORGIA TECH (4-1, 2-1 ACC ENTERING SATURDAY NIGHT)

Grade: B-plus. What a wonderful mess the Yellow Jackets stepped into Saturday night. Longtime nemesis Florida State is in shambles with coaching mutinies all over the place. Boosters are crying for Bobby Bowden to be compelled to retire at season's end. Defensive boss Chuck Amato is having to deny getting in a fight with offensive chief and head-coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher during the recent losing road trip to Boston College.

All of this was good news for Georgia Tech, which could set itself up as a serious Coastal Division threat with a first-ever victory in Tallahassee, Fla.

After escaping a potentially gruesome collapse against Clemson and getting man- handled the next week in a grudge match at Miami, it was hard to envision the Jackets being anything more than their usual above-average selves.

Then they exposed North Carolina as a fraud and claimed a road win against the SEC at Mississippi State.

A win over the Seminoles would set up an ACC mega-tilt (if such a thing exists) on homecoming against No. 5 Virginia Tech next week in Atlanta.

Win that and the path would be wide open to at least a share of the division title for the second consecutive year under Paul Johnson.

GEORGIA (3-3, 2-2 SEC)

Grade: C-plus. This is certainly not the best Georgia team in Mark Richt's nine seasons at the helm. It will be hard-pressed to scrape its way into the top six.

But from the perspective of anyone with no vested emotional interest in their success or failure, this squad is vying for the most entertaining Bulldogs team of the decade.

Not since the SEC championship season of 2002 has a Georgia team been so captivating on a weekly basis. Game after game of nail-biting drama has even casual observers wishing they could hear Larry Munson's take on these cardiac kids.

They've had a fourth-down stop on the final play. They've had a see-saw offensive shootout. They've had a last-second game-winning field goal. They've had a last-minute mood-swinging defeat. They've also had two dismal road efforts.

Who knew what to expect Saturday in Neyland Stadium? Would it be another "hob-nailed boot" kind of rally? Would another photo finish slip through the defense's fingers? Could this be the week that the Bulldogs put it all together and win handily? Or would this be a real stinker that's been lurking?

Turned out it was the stinker, with the Bulldogs making Jonathan Crompton and the Vols look like the cream of the SEC. Point is, you never know what will be on the menu with this Georgia team. But it's always worth checking out.

CLEMSON (2-3, 1-2 ACC)

Grade: D. Same ol' Clemson.

Tigers fans had truly bought into the Dabo Swinney "all in" program. Now what?

Just when you believed it was safe to believe that things had changed with the football program under its energetic new leadership, the same bad habits are back.

The spirit of resilience -- which Swinney's bragged about after the Tigers posted a moral victory by fighting back from a 24-0 deficit at Georgia Tech to very nearly win -- has evaporated. And, well, it should after last week's debacle in College Park, Md.

Maryland had just been ranked the worst team in Division I football by the syndicated Bottom 10 column by Steve Harvey -- and with good reason. The Terps had yielded no fewer than 32 points a game. They'd lost to Middle Tennessee State. Their only win was in overtime against Division I-AA James Madison.

Yet Maryland embarrassed the Tigers with a 24-21 victory that exposed all the usual faults with Clemson's offense.

Swinney claims these Tigers are a "better, tougher, more physical" team than versions of the recent past. Now after living with the "all out" negativity of the head-scratching Maryland defeat for two long idle weeks, they'll have seven games to prove that point. Nobody should hold their breath.

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


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