The clues are everywhere, but they're subtle.
Just like the other 119 teams in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, the South Carolina Gamecocks will play 12 games in the 2013 regular season. But already the one getting the most national attention is their showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs, scheduled for Saturday, September 7.
ESPN: The Magazine's "2013 College Football Preview," which hit newsstands Friday, diplomatically positions South Carolina and Georgia as "tied" for sixth place in the network's Preseason Power Rankings, but Georgia's blurb is listed on the preceding page (and their spread is noticeably larger). Even more telling is the fact that, while the early-season matchup with the Bulldogs is cited as one of South Carolina's "key games" (statistical gadfly Phil Steele picks Georgia by six, in case you were wondering), Georgia's critical contests instead are the Bulldogs season opener at Clemson and a home battle a few weeks later with Louisiana State.
Heck, even the Best Buy ad a few pages later depicts a phony SportsCenter screenshot that clearly shows Georgia leading the Gamecocks by three points with 1:10 left in the first quarter. Spooky stuff.
Taken individually, I'll admit these "clues" don't carry much weight. But we're at that Bermuda Triangle-esque point in mid-August when college football fans—bored stiff with golf and pointless-to-the-point-of-depressing NFL exhibition games—are so desperate for meaningful football they're willing to buy into just about anything. (I place myself firmly into this category, by the way.)
So what you have is something of a perfect storm within which paranoia and conspiracy theories can form. Still, anyone willing to really breathe in the musk of the creaking, waking giant that is the national sports media—a behemoth gearing up for its annual orgy of ad revenue, lame catchphrases and pretense that D-1 superstars are still just "student athletes"—can agree that Georgia has some serious juju going into the fall.
Here's what recent history tells us about early-season Georgia Bulldog football.
First, Aaron Murray, blandly likeable and All-American Boyish though he may be, has never beaten South Carolina. He's a heck of a quarterback, and this year the Bulldogs will enjoy home-field advantage "between the hedges" (though that hasn't seemed to make much of a difference lately). But Georgia will be coming fresh off an emotional test against the Clemson Tigers to open the season, a game that's predictably being hyped out the wazoo. So the outcome of the Bulldogs' game in Death Valley will almost certainly dictate the terms of their performance against South Carolina one way or the other.
Even a close win could spell trouble for Georgia.
Second, will the Bulldogs have all their players available for Week 2? As South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier famously quipped before the 2012 season, you can "always count on [Georgia] having two or three key players suspended.”
Sure enough, in a move that can only be described as quintessentially Georgia-esque, Bulldogs placekicker Marshall Morgan was arrested in early July for "BUI," or "boating under the influence." Earlier in the year, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was suspended from the opener against Clemson for a "marijuana-related incident."
People in Athens are probably praying Lindsay Lohan doesn't suddenly develop a taste for barbecue and REM memorabilia.
Finally, call it jitters, call it bad mojo, call it what you will—Georgia is not (or at any rate, has not been) an early-season team lo these last few years, no matter how much they improve late in the stretch. No doubt they'll be up for the game against South Carolina. And no doubt head coach Mark Richt really needs a winning season, lest he return to the hot seat he somehow always manages to avoid.
Despite what the national media seem to think about the Gamecocks' slim chances this year in what is undoubtedly their most important, most anxiety-ridden game of the season, my prediction is that South Carolina will find a way to win in Athens.
South Carolina: 27. Georgia: 17.