Stafford is ready and waiting to direct the Dawgs

The Georgia fans had to wait until the fourth quarter last Saturday, but they got what they came for.

A glimpse of the not-so-distant future.

Freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford trotted onto the field and was greeted with a thunderous roar at Sanford Stadium in an otherwise ho-hum 48-12 dismantling of Western Kentucky.

It was Georgia head coach Mark Richt's way of saying that Stafford is going to be the Bulldogs' quarterback at some point this season, even if Richt won't say it publicly.

Then again, maybe Richt won't have to say it. Maybe he'll let Stafford announce it himself to the college football world with his play.

The only thing Richt will say heading into Saturday's matchup with South Carolina (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET) is that Stafford is competing for the No. 2 job along with Joe Cox. Senior Joe Tereshinski will start at quarterback for the second straight week, even though he played like he might be looking over his shoulder a bit in the opener.

Who could blame him? Stafford, a 6-foot-3 strong-armed Texan, has everything Richt is looking for in a quarterback. That is, with the exception of experience.

Coaches tend to talk in code when it comes to playing a freshman at quarterback. It's almost taboo to even discuss it.

The thought of feeding a freshman quarterback to a Southeastern Conference defense is akin to giving your 16-year-old the keys to the car for the first time.

Richt's not-so-subtle message to Georgia fans and anybody else who anointed Stafford as the Bulldogs' savior a long time ago is that he will play Stafford when he thinks Stafford is ready -- and not before.

"If you take any guy that is a talented high school player, especially a quarterback, and you play him too soon and put him in a situation where he can win or lose the game and he loses it because he's just not ready, you hurt him," Richt said. "You've hurt the team.

"Then all of a sudden, everybody's opinion of that guy is 180 degrees different. We've got to make sure before we put anybody in that they're ready to play. I'm not just talking about Stafford, but all the quarterbacks we have. You just don't want to put a guy in there before he's ready."

Any talk of Stafford redshirting was quelled when he entered the game to open the fourth quarter last weekend. In his usual laid-back persona, Stafford coolly completed 3-of-5 passes for 40 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Coleman Watson.

What Richt liked most about Stafford's college debut was the way he recovered from a rocky start. He was 0-for-2 on his first two possessions and threw passes that weren't even close. But he came back to lead a five-play, 65-yard scoring drive that was reminiscent of what the coaches had seen from him the last two weeks of preseason practice after Stafford was listed as co-No. 3 on the depth chart along with Blake Barnes.

Richt and Georgia quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo were careful in what they asked Stafford to do. They didn't delve too deeply into the playbook, nor did they ask him to make a lot of checks and reads.

The idea was to play him and get him some confidence, because chances are the Bulldogs may need more of Stafford's big right arm against the Gamecocks.

"We've got to make sure before we put anybody in that they're ready to play. I'm not just talking about Stafford, but all the quarterbacks we have. You just don't want to put a guy in there before he's ready."
-- Georgia coach Mark Richt

"The coaches are going to do what they feel comfortable doing with me," said Stafford, who threw 38 touchdown passes as a senior in leading his Highland Park High School team to the Texas Class AAAA state championship. "I've just got to learn what they want me to learn and go out there and play. I feel like I've studied enough to know what our game plan is.

"I think I'm ready to play with whatever (the coaches) want me to handle."

How soon can the Gamecocks expect to see Stafford on Saturday? That probably depends on how well the Bulldogs are moving the ball with Tereshinski, who played all but one series in the first half against Western Kentucky and finished 7-of-17 for 90 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.

He didn't exactly shred a Western Kentucky defense that was ranked 100th against the pass last season among Division I-AA teams. He missed some open receivers, but was also hurt by at least three dropped passes.

Tereshinski has been around long enough that he knows what he's doing. He has the respect of his teammates and isn't going to try and get outside his limitations.

The general feeling around Athens is that will be good enough for the Bulldogs to win eight, maybe even nine games. But will it be good enough to win another SEC championship and finish in the Top 10 for a fifth straight season?

That's a tightrope Richt has to walk, and it starts this Saturday in Columbia, where it's never been easy for the Bulldogs. They fell behind 16-0 two years ago before rallying to win 20-16. They also narrowly escaped, 13-7, in 2002 and lost 21-10 in 2000.

Richt, having lost his SEC debut against South Carolina in 2001, has a pretty good grasp of this series. He also has a pretty good grasp of how his quarterback rotation will shake out against the Gamecocks.

He's just not saying.

"We'll just see," Richt said. "More than likely, we'll know who the No. 2 guy is going in. I don't know if we'll announce it. But we'll know."

Is it really any secret?

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.