Lattimore gives Gamecocks the look of contenders
Now this is what we've been waiting for from South Carolina.
Georgia showed that it still needs seasoning with QB Aaron Murray not doing enough to work the passing game down the field until it was too late, and the absence of A.J. Green proving to be a problem, but this very, very good team that's going to make lots of noise in the SEC East race.
But for now, it's all about the Gamecocks.
With Florida sputtering, coughing, and looking vulnerable (even with two double-digit wins), Tennessee rebuilding, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt not viable SEC East contenders, the division is ripe for the picking.
South Carolina came up with a very tough, very good effort against Georgia with Marcus Lattimore making his big SEC opening day statement and Stephen Garcia with a mistake-free performance to keep the Dawg offense off the field. The defense came up with the big turnover it needed, and it kept the Georgia running game to just 61 yards. It might not have been pretty, but as the season goes on, this will be a much nicer win that it might appear right now.
"Give the ball to Lattimore," is what Steve Spurrier was saying his offense was in the big win, and now the buzz is there. A program that has been so mediocre for so long has the pieces in place, the apparent attitude on the offensive line, and the catalyst in the true freshman to make this a special year. It has only been two games, but this appears to be the best team that Spurrier has had, and it's playing like it.
While it looks like South Carolina has it all going on this year, let's not book the tickets to Atlanta just yet.
There's a week off against Furman coming up, and then comes a road trip to Auburn followed up by the Alabama game. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are beatable, but those are on the road as part of a stretch of three away games in four weeks. There's still a date at Florida down the road and Arkansas isn't going to be easy, but for now, there's reason to be fired up with the Georgia game out of the way and with the team looking so strong.
It's still South Carolina, and there's a reason there hasn't been a season with more than eight wins since 1984 and without a sniff of an SEC title in years, but for long-suffering Gamecock fans, there's also a reason to be very, very excited.
Steve Spurrier has been waiting for a transformational figure to arrive since coming to Columbia five years ago. A quarterback would have been nice, but it turns out that a star running back will do just fine as well.
Everyone following the recruiting world new that Marcus Lattimore was going to be special. But this early in his Gamecock career? And this good? Heck, most would have been surprised to see him in a feature role so soon in September. Yet, that’s the reality, which is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Lattimore was the hero of Saturday’s 17-6 win over Georgia, rushing for 182 yards and both of the team’s touchdowns on 37 carries. That he was playing against high-schoolers last year almost seems like a misdemeanor. Beyond the obvious physical gifts, the kid runs with incredible instincts, hitting the hole without any wasted energy and running with the leverage needed to bounce off defenders and pick up extra yards. Quickly headed toward becoming a complete back, he’s also making life easier for QB Stephen Garcia, who has never had so many capable weapons than he does right now.
Is this the year for Spurrier to win the SEC East? Florida is taking time to adjust without Tim Tebow. Tennessee isn’t Tennessee. And Georgia is already in the rear view mirror. The coach has his best collection of talent, led by a precocious teenager, and the right circumstances to be in this race for a very long time.
This game was a replica of the 2008 edition of the Georgia-South Carolina series. Indeed, the last time these teams met in Columbia, they forged a nearly identical narrative.
That year, it was Georgia who was supposed to have the huge advantage at quarterback, with a veteran starter (Matthew Stafford) while South Carolina took the field with more uncertainty under center. That year, Georgia – despite a lack of special plays from Mr. Stafford – did a better job of converting the opportunities that came its way, but only because South Carolina performed so poorly in its opponent’s final third of the field. That year, it was a South Carolina running back – Eric Davis – who fumbled just short of the goal line in what was, at the time, a one-possession game. Georgia escaped with an ugly 14-7 win that was far more a result of Carolina’s mistakes than its own excellence.
This year, the shoe caressed the other foot. Stephen Garcia played poorly yet again for the Gamecocks, committing a horrible fumble that very nearly allowed Georgia to tie the score in the third quarter. Yet, just when the Dawgs were about to swing momentum fully in their direction, Washaun Ealey (who frankly should have been suspended for this game, whereas A.J. Green should have been allowed to play) coughed up the pill at the Carolina 2. Since Georgia used all three of its timeouts midway through the third quarter, South Carolina and Steve Spurrier were able to avoid throwing the ball. The Gamecocks smartly kept the ball on the ground and were able to ride the clock to a minimalist but very satisfying and highly important triumph.
Don’t proclaim that South Carolina has arrived as a program. The Gamecocks are a lot better, but that’s solely because of the phenomenal specimen that is freshman Marcus Lattimore, easily the best first-year running back in the United States. Lattimore truly carried this team on Saturday, but in future weeks, SEC defenses will stack the tackle box and dare Garcia to beat them. Given Garcia’s evident lack of development as a quarterback – he makes the same bad decisions and reads he did last year – the Gamecocks have a ton of work to do before they can be viewed as a transformed and upper-tier SEC team. Only Florida’s appreciable decline could give South Carolina a true shot to win the SEC East in 2010.