The first road trip of the Shane Beamer era was a bumpy one.
Escaping East Carolina with a 20-17 victory a week ago courtesy of a Parker White game-winning field goal, USC heads to No. 2 Georgia on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN) for the first SEC game of Beamer’s tenure.
The Gamecocks have shown flashes of a team that might be a bit ahead of schedule from what we anticipated in the preseason. South Carolina’s defensive line — which, to be fair, projected as a strength — ranks No. 1 nationally in pass rushing, according to Pro Football Focus. USC has also only allowed two touchdowns through matchups with ECU and Eastern Illinois.
While the defense has been stout, South Carolina’s offense has been hit or miss. The Gamecocks offensive line ranks among the SEC’s worst in pass protection, though some of that’s been brought on by missed assignments and poor protection calls from quarterback Zeb Noland.
Speaking of Noland, the Watkinsville, Georgia native heads back to his roots this weekend when South Carolina takes the field at Sanford Stadium. The former Iowa State and North Dakota State quarterback starred at nearby Oconee County High School during his prep career and his father, Travis, remains the head coach.
Noland has been largely efficient through two games, completing 26-of-46 passes for 335 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. If South Carolina hopes to spring another surprising upset in back-to-back trips to Athens, a chunk of the responsibility will fall on the Georgia-born graduate assistant-turned-quarterback.
Sticking with quarterbacks, it’s not altogether clear whether Noland will actually get the start Saturday. Beamer told listeners during his weekly radio show Thursday that Luke Doty, who was penciled in as QB1 ahead of the year before suffering a sprained foot in preseason, continues to progress. South Carolina’s first-year head coach didn’t go so far as to say he’d play, but there’s a chance we could see Doty for the first time all season in Athens.
Offensively, the Gamecocks found a spark last week with freshman running back Juju McDowell. McDowell notched 11 touches for 71 yards — all of which came in the second half — as he paced a mostly anemic South Carolina rushing attack in Greenville, North Carolina. His 63-yard fourth quarter kick return also set up White for a game-tying kick with just under seven minutes remaining.
McDowell should split carries with South Carolina’s dynamic quartet of tailbacks that include Kevin Harris, MarShawn Lloyd and ZaQuandre White, but expect the freshman to get in on the action again Saturday.
In the last 11 meetings between South Carolina and Georgia, things have been split almost directly down the middle. The Bulldogs have six wins over that span to the Gamecocks’ five.
South Carolina heads into the weekend as nearly five-touchdown underdogs to a Georgia team that stymied No. 6 Clemson’s dynamic offense in the season opener in Charlotte.
Also, in case you forgot, former USC head coach Will Muschamp will patrol the UGA sidelines Saturday after he was hired as a defensive analyst by the Bulldogs over the summer. Muschamp has since been shifted to a special teams coach after Scott Cochran took a leave of absence to deal with undiclosed health issues.
Two years ago, the Gamecocks were roughly three-touchdown dogs on the road when they sprung the upset over the Bulldogs between the hedges. I’m not going as far as to say South Carolina wins Saturday, but weirder things have happened.
Beamer has brought a new life to the USC program since he was hired in December and things seem to be moving in the right direction. However, this Gamecocks team just isn’t equipped to take down a Georgia squad that Beamer told reporters Tuesday might be the school’s most talented team ever. (Keep in mind Beamer was on staff at UGA when the Bulldogs went to the national title in 2017.)
South Carolina started 2-0, as they should have. The undefeated season stops Saturday in Athens.
Prediction: No. 2 Georgia 38, South Carolina 10