South Carolina sets sights on 1st SEC title
ATHENS, Ga. – Mark Richt needs a win in the worst way.
Steve Spurrier is in no mood to help a rival coach.
No. 12 South Carolina (1-0) has its sights on a second straight trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game, and Spurrier's Gamecocks can take a giant step toward that goal with a win Saturday over Richt's Georgia Bulldogs — even though it's only the second week of the season.
"It's a huge game," Spurrier said. "We all know the winner is in pretty good shape."
Georgia (0-1) is coming off a 35-21 loss to No. 4 Boise State, which knocked the Bulldogs out of the Top 25 and turned up the heat on Richt even more. The coach who won a pair of SEC titles early in his career and led his team to a No. 2 finish in the national rankings just four years ago desperately needs a big victory to show his program is still relevant in the mighty SEC.
Richt keeps facing the same questions from the media each week. He keeps doing his best to remain focused on the game at hand — not what might happen at the end of the year.
"We're just coaching ball, OK?" he said. "You guys want to make things bigger than they are. The bottom line is like with anything in life. You just have to control what you can, and that's my attitude and my effort and my team's attitude and effort. Today is no different than a a year ago or two years ago going into game two in my mind. Everybody is locked in, everybody is working hard and everybody is confident we're going to have a good ballgame."
In recent times, there haven't been many of those.
The Bulldogs went 6-7 a season ago — their first losing mark since 1996 — and they've won seven of their last 16 SEC games.
Those kind of numbers just won't cut it, not in a conference that has claimed the last five national championships, not at a school with a fervent fan base that packs Sanford Stadium with nearly 93,000 on any given Saturday, who'll be out in force again this week intent on cheering but ready to boo if things go wrong.
"Well, times change," Spurrier said. "Who would've ever thunk Jim Tressel wouldn't be at Ohio State this year? Things change quickly sometimes. And obviously if you go in a little bit of a slump and you're at a school that's used to winning, and you're not winning as big as you used to, the fans get a little irritated. That's just the way it is."
Richt's players came to his defense this week.
"We're always trying to play for Coach Richt, as much as he does for us," defensive end Abry Jones said. "We try not to let that talk get to us or get us down."
South Carolina wore down the Bulldogs in 2010 by handing the ball to Marcus Lattimore over and over again. He wound up running it a staggering 37 times for 182 yards in the 17-6 victory, scoring the game's only touchdowns on a couple of short runs and putting the Gamecocks in position for the clinching field goal with just over a minute to go.
"That whole week we prepared to run the ball and I knew coming into the game that we were going to run the ball a lot," Lattimore recalled. "Once I got in my groove, I felt like I could be successful. Obviously, I had a good game. This year, it's a whole different year. They're watching film and they'll be ready."
Still, there's no reason to expect the Gamecocks won't go with largely the same plan again, especially with Georgia missing inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, a key player in their run-stopping defense. He underwent foot surgery this week and will be out at last a month.
If Lattimore winds up with another 37-carry afternoon, that's just fine with him. He's always wanted to be a runner in the mold of George Rogers or Herschel Walker, two Heisman Trophy winners who were willing to run the ball as many times as necessary.
"Those are the guys I look up to," Lattimore said. "I love watching film on them, because they're real tough, real powerful. That's the kind of player I'd like to be like, but I've still got a long way to go."
Stephen Garcia has reclaimed the starting quarterback job for the Gamecocks after coming off the bench last week against East Carolina. He took over for Connor Shaw with South Carolina trailing 17-0 and sparked what turned into a 56-37 romp.
Garcia's up-and-down career — which includes five suspensions — is again on the rise. Heck, he's even shaved, getting a thumbs-up from his coach.
"We've been asking him to shave for five years now. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't. I just think a quarterback should be shaven," Spurrier said. "Quarterbacks, everybody is looking at them. They need to be sharp, they need to do things right, and Stephen's made a lot of progress toward that."
Spurrier is more concerned about Garcia's play on the field. He's not likely to throw it a lot against Georgia, but the Gamecocks will take another efficient performance like the one he had last season: 12 of 17 for 165 yards.
"When you play the real games, that's when it counts, that's when it counts for everybody," Spurrier said.
One thing's for sure: the coach isn't thinking about the troubles for his Georgia counterpart. Spurrier is focused on bringing South Carolina its first SEC title, and this would be a big step in that direction.
"We had nowhere to go but up," he said. "And we've gone gradually up. We're not up yet, that's for sure, but we're trying to get there."
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Athens, and Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.