It's time to take an early look at the one game that will determine the South Carolina Gamecocks' season in 2014. And there's no reason to delay the inevitable.
South Carolina's home game against its biggest SEC rival, Georgia, will be the key game that will make or break South Carolina's season.
Missouri cruised through the SEC East on its way to winning the division in 2013. While the Tigers will have a good team again in 2014, the division should come down to South Carolina and Georgia. With Florida scrambling to gain relevance in the division and Kentucky and Tennessee still lagging behind the rest, the race will come down to South Carolina and Georgia.
In an early look at the game and season as a whole, Georgia seems to have the upper hand with a more secure defense and a tandem of running backs who will look to wreak havoc on the South Carolina front seven in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley.
Gurley is the lead back, but Marshall is the player who can make a huge difference in this game. Marshall missed most of the 2013 season after tearing his ACL and will look to come back with a vengeance. He was a major receiving threat in the game in 2013, when Georgia defeated South Carolina.
With both Gurley and Marshall back, Georgia can establish a strong ground game, which means South Carolina's defensive line will need to clog up the interior of the line of scrimmage.
Off of the edges, where Georgia's running backs can be the most dangerous, South Carolina can contain them. The Gamecocks linebackers are quick and instinctual, so I like South Carolina's ability to limit the ground game enough to give the team a chance to win.
Continuing with offense, the Bulldogs will rely on a quarterback whose name is not Aaron Murray. Murray has graduated and is off to the NFL, so it's Hutson Mason's turn to lead the offense.
Georgia has a lot of depth at wide receiver, which could present an issue for the young South Carolina secondary, which will have a lot of inexperienced players at cornerback.
South Carolina will give up a lot of points in this game because it takes place early in the season, and there are a lot of moving parts to work out defensively. The linebackers can only carry the Gamecocks so far.
The good news for South Carolina is even though it will give up a lot of points, the offense is right at the top of the SEC and should put up its fair share.
Dylan Thompson has the experience to lead the offense and he can win big games against a rival. Mike Davis and company out of the backfield are threats in the running game and receiving game. I sure wouldn't want to try to find a game plan to limit Davis.
Where South Carolina will improve from 2013 to 2014 is in the passing game. Don't get me wrong, Shaw was a spectacular quarterback with great accuracy and possesses one of the strongest wills to win that I have seen in the last few years. Shaw was everything you want in a quarterback, but Thompson gives a new element to the offense.
Thompson's NFL-like arm and play-action abilities that open up from a potent run game will allow South Carolina to air the ball out to a deep group of receivers and talented tight ends. I'd watch out for Pharoh Cooper and one of the trio of tight ends to string together big performance in this rivalry battle.
This game will be high scoring, and the difference could come down to one big play, possibly on special teams. I give the edge to South Carolina in this department as Cooper will have an electrifying kick return to set his team up for success.
Both of these teams are extremely talented and more experienced than last season. Georgia should be healthy, and both offenses will be finely tuned machines. South Carolina and Georgia will light up the scoreboard, though the game will come down to one big play and the Gamecocks' home-field advantage.
The defenses will be good eventually, but early on in the season, I see them giving up big plays and a lot of yardage, which equals a lot of points.
South Carolina will find a way to win an absolute shootout at Williams-Brice Stadium.
South Carolina 41, Georgia 38