<
>

Elimination Saturday in the East?

9/8/2010

There’s a common denominator when it comes to Georgia’s last eight SEC championships.

In all eight of those seasons, Georgia defeated South Carolina.

Granted, only two of those titles came when both teams were members of the SEC (2002 and 2005). But going all the way back to the 1960s -- and the two teams played regularly in those days -- the Bulldogs never managed to win a title of any sorts in those seasons that they lost to the Gamecocks.

It wasn’t often that Georgia lost to South Carolina -- period.

Georgia has won 30 of the last 40 meetings in the series, although five of the Gamecocks’ wins during that span have come since they joined the SEC in 1992.

Coaches like to tell you that what’s happened in the past doesn’t have an impact on the present.

And that’s hard to argue.

It’s equally difficult to argue that this Saturday’s showdown between Georgia and South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium (ESPN2, noon ET) isn’t an elimination game in the Eastern Division race.

Sure, Florida looks a little more vulnerable this season, but losing a divisional game this early in the season to one of the top contenders and then going on to win the division and all the potential tiebreakers that may go with it is probably a little far-fetched.

A loss by either team Saturday doesn’t necessarily mean the season is toast. But the odds of losing Saturday and then rebounding to make it to Atlanta are long indeed.

For one, South Carolina has never played in the SEC championship game.

But consider this: Only three times since league expansion in 1992 has a team lost its first conference game to a divisional opponent and gone on to play in the SEC championship game.

The most recent team to do it was Tennessee in 2007 after the Vols opened their conference schedule with a loss to Florida. Arkansas also did it in 2002 after losing to Alabama to begin the SEC slate, and Tennessee pulled it off in 1997 after losing to Florida in the league opener. The Vols, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning that season, remain the only team in the league to have won the SEC championship after losing their league opener to a divisional foe.

So if history means anything, the stakes are plenty high for Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday.

And with both teams coming off impressive season-opening performances, Georgia coach Mark Richt has been around this series long enough to know what kind of game awaits.

“It comes down to the wire,” Richt said. “I think there were two times where there was a little bit of separation, but every other game it seems like it’s within seven points and usually down to the last second where somebody has to do something heroic. ... We've had some last-second plays that have been the difference in winning and losing.

“I talk about teams being ready for a 60-minute fight and I think this is one of those games where you better be ready for it, because if you're not, it will sneak up on you and you will find yourself in a lot of trouble.”

The Bulldogs are the only Eastern Division team that Steve Spurrier has yet to beat at home since taking over at South Carolina in 2005 and have won seven of the last eight games in the series.

“We have not been successful [against Georgia], and we know that,” Spurrier said.”If we play well and we play our best, we know we can play with them. All we know is we can play with them. To beat them, we have to play better.

“We can’t have touchdowns called back and have the mistakes that have cost us in prior games.”

The reality is that both of these teams are good enough to lose this game and still hang around in the East race. Something to keep in mind is that Florida has to go to Alabama this season with South Carolina getting the Crimson Tide at home. Georgia doesn’t play Alabama this season.

Of the three, South Carolina is the only team that has to face Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn this season -- making Saturday’s game all the more critical for the Gamecocks.

But, then, Georgia goes from South Carolina to Arkansas the very next week. The last thing the Bulldogs want to do is return home 0-1 in the league and needing to beat the Hogs just to keep from being out of the East race before we hit October.

So no matter how you slice it, Saturday’s duel at high noon in the scorching Columbia sun has a definite elimination feel to it.