ATHENS -- Georgia senior receiver Michael Bennett was mid-sentence during an interview Tuesday afternoon when he stopped himself. His eyes got wide as he saw a figure outside.
“That’s Scott Van Pelt,” Bennett said. “Man, I wanna go shake his hand. No offense to y’all, but that’s kinda cool.”
Van Pelt, an ESPN personality, was in Athens to interview Georgia star Todd Gurley. It was the latest bit of national recognition for the sixth-ranked Bulldogs, who know it could go away quickly if they fall Saturday.
Georgia beat South Carolina last year, but there isn’t much talk about that game around the Bulldogs this year. There isn’t much about the second half of the Clemson game two weeks ago either.
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Instead the focus has been on the 2012 debacle at South Carolina, and the first half of this year’s season opener.
The specter of the trip to Columbia two years ago still hangs over the team, not flushed away by last year’s win in Athens.
“It was a top-10 matchup, and we didn’t look like a top-10 team,” senior cornerback Damian Swann said of the 35-7 loss. “Now we’re back in the top 10, we’ve gotta prove that we deserve to be in the top 10 and that we can compete against anybody.”
Dwelling on that loss from two years ago is more than a motivational strategy, according to some players. The impression it left, according to senior receiver Chris Conley, is that Georgia can’t play well in a hostile environment. Therefore one of the goals this week, he said, is to “be fundamentally so secure so that the crowd noise doesn’t make a difference.”
“You go back to that game, and you watch it, and it’s literally us sitting in the meeting room hitting ourselves in the head like, ‘Why did we do that? We’ve repped this play 100 times, why did we make that one mistake when it counted?’ ” Conley said. “It’s really something we’ve looked back on and said, ‘OK what about that week did we do differently? What things did we do not quite to the level of expectation that we like?’
“It really challenges us now to make sure we don’t make those mistakes, so we don’t have to look back in retrospect and say, ‘We shouldn’t have done this.’ ”
Then there’s Georgia’s defense, which by all rights should be enamored with its debut under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. It held Clemson to one first down in the second half.
Instead, Pruitt has found several things wrong with his unit’s performance and focused on the first half.
“If we want to be dominant, we don’t want to give up 21 points,” Swann said. “That’s the first thing coach said, ‘I’m not used to giving up 21 points.’ ”
In fact, Pruitt’s defense at Florida State last year only did that twice, once to Boston College (which had star tailback Andre Williams) and to Auburn in the national title game.
This is the ninth time in the Georgia-South Carolina series that both teams have been ranked, but four of those have come in the past five years. It’s a game that used to be a regional rivalry but has lately taken on a national scope. The national implications have helped, as has the star power: Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, and now Gurley.
This is the first time South Carolina has been an underdog at home since 2010 -- when it proceeded to beat No. 1 Alabama.
Senior center David Andrews pointed to the mantra of “ignore the noise,” started by offensive coordinator Mike Bobo early in the 2011 season, when the Bulldogs were 0-2 and rumors were heavy about head coach Mark Richt’s job security.
“He just kept saying, ‘Ignore the noise, whether it’s good or bad,’ ” Andrews said. “My sophomore year was kind of the same thing. We started really good, then had the bump in the road at South Carolina, and it was back to ‘Ignore the noise.’ So it’s the same thing every year, ‘Ignore the noise whether it’s good or bad.’ ”