By PETE IACOBELLI, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — No. 3 Georgia is assured its dominant win over South Carolina won’t be the only major statement it makes this season.
The Bulldogs (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) made quick and easy work of the previously ranked Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1) in a 41-7 victory on Saturday. The game figured to be an early test of whether Georgia, which lost stellar NFL players like linebacker Roquan Smith and tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, could build and move forward from its College Football Playoff run in 2017.
“We knew we were going to have to make a statement,” Georgia offensive lineman Lamont Gaillard said. “And that’s what we did.”
Georgia took control early with Deandre Baker’s interception and return in the game’s first minute (Baker’s sure pick six turned into a fumble recovery score by teammate Juwan Taylor after Baker dropped the ball early) and Georgia rarely let up. Three third quarter touchdowns where the Bulldogs outgained South Carolina 226 yards to 35 put the game out of reach.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was pleased with his team’s focus and execution much of the contest. It won’t mean much, he added, if his team does not maintain a similar drive to achieve he’s seen since the Bulldogs’ demoralizing overtime loss to the Crimson Tide in the national championship game this past January.
“They’ve got to continue to get better for us to be the kind of team we need to be, for us to go where we want to go,” Smart said. “We’re not there yet.”
Although, the Bulldogs’ path to get there seems clearer, even this early in the season.
Many thought South Carolina and coach Will Muschamp’s third-year program would pressure the Bulldogs in the SEC Eastern Division throughout the year. Instead, Georgia appears the clear-cut, unquestioned favorite to make Atlanta to defend its league title.
Once there, it will need to show the same relentless offense and suffocating defense to play with one of the SEC West’s heavyweights, most likely the same Alabama team that rallied from 13 points down against Georgia to take the crown.
One of the biggest questions Georgia faced from many outsiders was if its latest group of runners could live to the team’s legacy of talented, smart runners with Chubb and Michel the most recent example. D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien more than lived up to that against the Gamecocks.
Behind Georgia’s massive, experienced offensive line , the team piled up 271 yards rushing (South Carolina had just 54) as all three tailbacks scored touchdowns. Holyfield led the way 76 yards on nine carries, an average of more than eight yards a rush. Swift had 64 yards, including a 17-yard rushing TD. Herrien added a 15-yard scoring run in that decisive third quarter.
“I think we see how we can be,” said Swift, a sophomore. “Yeah, we made a statement, but we’ve got more to do.”
Quarterback Jake Fromm said the Bulldogs have been working, improving and planning since last winter. They tuned out doubters and got to work, certain, he said, the players to achieve great things were on campus and ready to do what was required to achieve big things.
“Our guys are special,” said Fromm, who completed 15 of 18 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown.
Smart sees that, as well, but knows how damaging believing you’ve arrived too soon can be for programs.
Smart said his team had a so-so practice this past Thursday leading up to South Carolina, something that bothered him and something he knows needs fixing. “We’re not doing the things we need to do to get where we want to be,” he said. “I’ve told the players that.
“I’m just happy and content with this (win),” Smart continued. “But we’re looking forward to getting a lot better.”