The road to Atlanta runs through Athens

Spurrier knows USC-Georgia winner doesn’t guarantee SEC East title, but it’s a good start

dcloninger@thestate.comSeptember 3, 2013 

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 10, 2011.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

  • GAMECOCKS VS. BULLDOGS

    When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

    Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.

    TV: ESPN

    Radio: WNKT FM 107.5 in the Midlands. In Athens, the in-stadium frequencies for the WNKT broadcast are 93.3 FM (primary) & 98.9 FM (backup).

    Satellite Radio: Sirius 86/XM 86

    Line: Georgia by 3

    THREE IN A ROW

    USC has beaten Georgia three consecutive years for the first time in the history of the series that dates back to 1894. The Gamecocks try to make it four straight on Saturday.

    2012: USC 35, Georgia 7

    2011: USC 45, Georgia 42

    2010: USC 17, Georgia 6

Beating Georgia is important. It’s the first SEC game, and No. 6 South Carolina wants to keep a promising season moving forward.

As for taking a step toward the SEC championship game, the Gamecocks are looking at it as a step, not the express lane. They know more than anyone how an early SEC win can get trumped later on.

“We’ve also learned the winner doesn’t necessarily win the Eastern Division,” coach Steve Spurrier said at his weekly news conference on Tuesday. “It does put the winner in pretty good shape, but doesn’t always, certainly doesn’t determine the winner.”

The Gamecocks (1-0, 0-0 SEC) have a three-game winning streak against No. 11 Georgia (0-1, 0-0) but have made one SEC championship game appearance in that span. In 2010, USC’s 5-3 SEC record was good enough to win the SEC East after Florida finished 4-4 and Georgia finished 3-5. But in 2011 and 2012, USC’s wins against Georgia meant nothing in the long run.

The Bulldogs have gone 7-1 in the SEC in each of the past two seasons while USC has gone 6-2. While many had pointed at the schedule and claimed that Georgia had an easier path after the USC game, the Gamecocks were still the ones in the driver’s seat until one more conference loss thrust them into the backseat.

That, seemingly, has changed this year. After Saturday, USC has a three-game SEC road swing in consecutive weeks against Arkansas and Tennessee, each led by first-year coaches, and Missouri, a team it pummeled last year. The Gamecocks get Florida, another East hopeful, at home. It’s USC’s schedule that could be called the easiest because Georgia has to play LSU in addition to its usual match with the Gators in Jacksonville, Fla.

But USC isn’t looking at beating Georgia as the golden ticket to the Georgia Dome. The Gamecocks can’t, after what hapened the past two years.

“We just have to remain focused and know what’s ahead of us,” defensive end Chaz Sutton said.

Sutton, from Savannah, Ga., is one of 25 Georgia natives on USC’s roster. All of them want to beat their home-state school but all of them know that the only way to play for the SEC championship is to win as many games as possible. Georgia as one of them would be nice, but it’s not a guarantee for a championship berth or a denial of the same.

USC has a chance for its first four-game winning streak against Georgia, and some of USC’s seniors (such as Georgia native Connor Shaw) could finish their careers undefeated against the Bulldogs. To do it in their home state would be a bonus.

“Obviously, anyone who goes back to their home state to play, there’s an extra-specialness to that,” Spurrier said. “I never had a chance to go back to (Knoxville) Tennessee to play when I was in college at Florida. But we did play at Vanderbilt one night. That’s the only time I played in my home state of Tennessee.”

Shaw will get to start his first game in his home state and hopes that he gets to play there again on Dec. 7. Winning on Saturday is a rung on the ladder, but there are many left above it.

And the importance of the first one can be negated after the second, fifth or eighth rungs.

“The winner of the last two years has not gone, so there’s a lot more to it than this game, as we found out,” Spurrier said.

Follow Cloninger on Twitter at @DCTheState

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