South Carolina football heads to Athens this upcoming weekend facing an extremely tall task — the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs. Listed as 24-point underdogs by Las Vegas, the Gamecocks are hoping for a massive upset or at least a respectable showing against an SEC title and College Football Playoff contender.
With kickoff set for noon, televised on ESPN, here are some of the key questions facing USC and coach Will Muschamp.
Can the run game get going?
South Carolina’s rushing offense has shown out at times this season, racking up 4.7 yards per carry against Alabama and 5.4 against Kentucky. But it also went completely dormant in the team’s first true road game at Missouri (0.7 yards per attempt). Seniors Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle have the talent and have been playing with an edge, according to Will Muschamp.
But Georgia’s run defense has been nothing short of outstanding — opponents are averaging less than 60 yards per game against the Dawgs, and they’ve yet to score a rushing touchdown. Outside of top-10 Notre Dame, UGA’s schedule has been fairly easy to date, so the Gamecocks’ run game has at least a fighting chance to get going and take pressure off freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski.
Which Ryan Hilinski will show up?
In South Carolina’s other ranked matchup so far this season against then-No. 2 Alabama, Hilinski was impressive, throwing for 324 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 36-of-57 passing. That earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors. A week later, amid concerns about elbow soreness, he was 13 of 30 against Missouri for just 166 yards, with 75 of them coming on one pass to Bryan Edwards. He also threw a back-breaking interception near the goal line that ended USC’s comeback hopes.
Against Kentucky, Hilinski was solid but not asked to do all that much as the Gamecocks leaned heavily on the ground game. That probably won’t be the case in Athens, as Carolina will need every bit of offensive firepower it can muster to keep up with the Bulldogs. Especially if the Gamecocks go down early, Hilinski will need to throw often and look sharp doing it.
How will USC’s D-line fare against its biggest test?
Georgia’s offensive line is huge, fast and absolutely stuffed with talent. Even a few injuries haven’t slowed the unit, which has allowed all of one sack this season and blocks for the SEC’s top rushing attack. Pro Football Focus ranks the group No. 2 in the country, behind Oregon.
South Carolina’s defensive line isn’t too shabby either — Javon Kinlaw has rocketed up NFL draft boards and is second in the conference in sacks, and edge rusher D.J. Wonnum is a special talent as well, according to his coaches.
So what will happen when these two lines meet will go a long way in determining Saturday’s outcome.
Can the Gamecocks limit Georgia’s playmakers?
Georgia QB Jake Fromm orchestrates a very efficient offense, and he does so extremely well in the eyes of Will Muschamp. Making his life easier is the fact that he has plenty of talented options that can make things happen for him. Running backs D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Zamir White form the bulk of a rushing attack that averages 6.8 yards per attempt, and wide receivers Lawrence Cager, George Pickens, Dominick Blaylock and Demetris Robertson all have at least two touchdown catches and 150 yards on the season.
So can South Carolina’s secondary, a group that’s dealt with inconsistency this season, limit the number of explosive plays the Bulldogs get? Through four FBS games this year, the Gamecocks have allowed 48 “chunk” plays, according to GamecockCentral — passes of 20 or more yards, runs of 15 or more yards.
Will things stay respectable?
The last time South Carolina went to Georgia, in 2017, the game was actually tied early in the second quarter, and the Gamecocks prevented things from getting out of hand in a contest where they were pegged as 23.5-point underdogs. The same could not be said in 2018, when UGA came to Williams-Brice Stadium and quickly raced to a dominant 44-17 win.
Will Muschamp has never beaten Georgia or Clemson and has a 1-12 record against ranked teams at USC. Reversing those trends Saturday might be too much to ask, but showing the fan base an encouraging performance to build off of is key.