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September 13, 2008

Dawgs looking for payback

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Matthew Stafford remembers the frustration most of all. Georgia's quarterback couldn't have realized then the true cost the Bulldogs would pay for their 16-12 loss to South Carolina last year.

One touchdown in their Southeastern Conference opener, Stafford knows now, and it would've been the Bulldogs in the SEC title game with a chance to go on to the national title.

Instead, the hottest team at the end of last season was left wondering what happened back in September.

It's a regret the second-ranked Bulldogs (2-0) don't want this season when they face South Carolina (1-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday.

Stafford was a rising sophomore a year ago, ready to lead then No. 11 Georgia into the SEC race. But he was out of synch most of the way against the unranked Gamecocks, the Bulldogs going without a touchdown for first time in six seasons before a stunned Sanford Stadium crowd.

Stafford got a final chance to rally Georgia. However, he got picked off by linebacker Jasper Brinkley in the final seconds.

"Just being frustrated the whole game and me personally not playing well," Stafford said about the 2007 game.

The Bulldogs found their stride soon after. They won 10 of their next 11 games -- the loss to Tennessee kept them from winning the league's Eastern Division -- and rolled into the Bowl Championship Series as nearly everyone's favorite outsider who deserved a shot at the national crown.

"They knocked us out of the SEC championship and maybe the national championship last year," defensive tackle Corvey Irvin said. "So we feel like we've got a chip on our shoulder."

The Bulldogs are very aware South Carolina could pose a similar threat to a team picked by many to wind up in the BCS title game this season.

"It's going to be a physical game as it was last year," Stafford said. "They are a big defense. They definitely can run and hit."

Georgia typically brings out the best in South Carolina, no matter how big the mismatch seems on paper.

The Gamecocks handed coach Mark Richt his first Georgia loss in 2001. While the Bulldogs won the next four games, only three of those wins came by more than a touchdown.

"Both teams are usually pretty healthy," Richt said. "Both teams are excited about the promise of the season, and I think from a talent base we are very, very similar."

Maybe not this year.

The Bulldogs began the year No. 1 in the country, yet dropped a spot after their opening week victory over Georgia Southern, 45-21. They had few problems last Saturday against Central Michigan, 56-17, and feature one of the country's most vibrant runners in Knowshon Moreno.

The sophomore star leads the SEC with 227 yards and six TDs. But perhaps his best move so far was hurdling Central Michigan safety Vince Agnew to continue one of his runs last weekend.

"The thing I love about Moreno other than having to play him ... there's not a more intense player on film," South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.

The Gamecocks are struggling to pull out of a five-game SEC losing streak, the longest of coach Steve Spurrier's career. They lost their second straight game to Vanderbilt, 24-17, last week.

Spurrier can't find a consistent quarterback or an offense that moves the ball the way he wants. And he'll probably have to go this week without the group's best player, all-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley, who missed most of the Vanderbilt game with a right hamstring pull.

"I still believe we're a better team than we were last year" in beating Georgia, Spurrier said. "Although offensively, we certainly have not shown that. So, hopefully, we'll start playing a lot better."

South Carolina has definitely lost one of its strongest weapons coming in -- the element of surprise. Georgia can't forget what occurred against the Gamecocks a year ago, and what it meant later on.

"We got to look at that," said Irvin, Georgia's defensive tackle. "We did big things last year, but we could have been even better."



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