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South Carolina vs. Georgia: Will Clowney Harass Murray?

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South Carolina's defensive line seemed to shut down North Carolina's passing game last week. Can the unit do the same against dangerous Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray? Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
South Carolina's defensive line seemed to shut down North Carolina's passing game last week. Can the unit do the same against dangerous Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray? Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

After taking care of their Northern neighbors last week, South Carolina gets a shot at the Southern neighbors today, traveling to Athens for a border war with Georgia.

The Gamecocks will open SEC play with a healthy amount of confidence following a never-in-doubt victory over the Tar Heels. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are smarting a bit after a tough loss at Clemson. If Georgia fails to win this weekend, their title hopes will go up in smoke. If South Carolina can’t deliver in their first away game, then the Gamecocks will have to hope that Georgia drops two conference games and deal with all the taunts from Clemson fans.

Georgia needs to salvage its season while South Carolina wants a leg up on their SEC East rival. Amidst all the import of the game, these are the three things to watch.

1. Jadeveon Clowney's "Bounce-Back"

Maybe it’s me, but the ESPN announcers for the Gamecocks’ season opener were pretty harsh with their comments on Clowney. The guy is a defensive lineman and is therefore going to take some plays off just like every other defensive lineman. North Carolina also devised a game plan that was specifically designed to avoid Clowney. So it made sense that his impact was mostly unseen and didn’t include any highlight-reel hits.

It was just one unimpressive game, but if he follows that performance up with another one in a marquee game against Georgia there’s reason to worry. As the saying goes: One is a mistake, two is a trend, three is a problem. More to the point, a subpar game from Clowney against Georgia might sink the Gamecocks’ chances to win.

Georgia lost to Clemson, but they certainly didn’t struggle on offense. South Carolina’s defense is more stout that the resistance offered by the Tigers, but Georgia is awfully good and likely to put up some points.

Clowney and his defensive line compatriots will need to pressure Aaron Murray into making mistakes. If Murray has time, he’ll find open targets. Georgia will scheme to slow Clowney, but not to the extent that North Carolina did. The Bulldogs’ offense will run as per usual and Clowney should have more chances to make a play.

If he and the South Carolina defense can at least slow Georgia, that’ll take pressure off the Gamecocks’ offense and give the team a great chance to escape with a win.

2. Can The Gamecocks’ Secondary Deliver A Repeat Performance? 

All the criticism of Clowney aside, South Carolina’s defense looked good. North Carolina tried to use a short passing game and the Gamecocks repeatedly put the brakes on the Tar Heels’ high-octane offense.

The secondary was particularly impressive. Corner Jimmy Legree was eye-catching as he frequently involved himself in plays and sophomore safety TJ Gurley held his position well despite his inexperience. As a unit, the South Carolina secondary supported the linebackers against the run and held North Carolina to just 4.5 yards per pass attempt.

Against the Bulldogs, the secondary will need to be at their collective best. Murray is an obvious threat, but if he’s pressured he is prone to mistakes. Tight coverage would allow Clowney and company extra time to rush the passer and disrupt the potent Georgia air attack.

The secondary also will be key in stopping Georgia’s running game. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are forces of nature. Against Clemson they combined for 197 yards and three touchdowns. The Gamecocks’ secondary will be called upon to contain these two playmakers. The difference between a 10-yard run and a game-breaking touchdown dash is sound tackling in the secondary.

3. South Carolina's Offense Will Need To Make Plays

North Carolina was stymied by the Gamecock defense, so South Carolina’s offense didn’t need to do much. A couple of big plays put South Carolina comfortably ahead and much of the game was just built around holding that lead.

The big-play potential is encouraging. Shaq Roland is a speedster and seeing him start the season with a 65-yard touchdown reception added an explosive element to the Gamecocks’ arsenal. Mike Davis’ 75-yard run should trouble future opponents.

But big plays are tough to count on. This Georgia defense is vulnerable based on last week's performance. However, SEC games tend to require sustained drives into the teeth of defenses. Especially in the hostile environment of Athens, South Carolina will need to prove they can move the ball downfield on a controlled drive.

Connor Shaw is skilled at this and his decision-making was sublime last season. He wasn’t impressive in the season opener, but he didn’t need to be. If Shaw rises to the occasion, Georgia’s defense will give him the opportunity to exploit it. Likewise, Davis should put his mark on the game. The Tigers rushed for almost 200 yards against the Bulldogs so Davis should be able to provide a consistent rushing threat.

Stopping Georgia’s offense is a big ask even for a defense as good as South Carolina’s. So the Gamecocks’ offensive unit will need to score points. It’s not like Georgia’s defense is bulletproof, so South Carolina should have the upper hand if the game turns into a shootout.