ATHENS, Ga. - The South Carolina football game is always big for the Georgia Bulldogs because it's their Southeastern Conference opener.
Georgia has won three SEC East titles this decade, and all three were kickstarted by wins over the Gamecocks. Yet Saturday night's game has added importance for the Bulldogs, who are on the verge of teetering out of national viability.
"It's going to be a huge game for our reputation at Georgia," junior weakside linebacker Rennie Curran said Tuesday.
By opening last Saturday with a 24-10 loss at Oklahoma State, the Bulldogs find themselves in uncharted and unpleasant territory. They are 0-1 for the first time in nine seasons under coach Mark Richt, who is 82-23 overall and had never owned a losing record at any point with the Bulldogs until now.
The Bulldogs dropped to 21st in the Associated Press poll, the first time they've been outside the top 20 since clipping Vanderbilt 20-17 midway through the 2007 season. Georgia had an open date after winning in Nashville and upset Florida the following week to rocket their way back to what would be a No. 2 final ranking.
There are no weeks off in which to heal this time, only games against South Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona State, LSU and Tennessee.
"We just want to see what our identity is and how we come out after a loss," senior safety Bryan Evans said. "We can't let Oklahoma State beat us twice. We can't go out and feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to come out hungry."
The Bulldogs were the only SEC team to lose last weekend, when a slew of offenses that struggled last season erupted in easy wins. Auburn and Tennessee are among the programs with renewed optimism, but Bulldogs backers are fearing the worst from an offense that no longer includes quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno.
After marching 80 yards in 10 plays on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead at OSU, Georgia produced three points in the final 54 minutes. Quarterback Joe Cox (15-of-30 for 162 yards) and tailback Richard Samuel (87 yards on 20 carries) were decent, but decent isn't where the Bulldogs have resided under Richt.
Georgia is the only Bowl Subdivision program to win at least eight games each of the last 12 seasons, a streak that would be in peril should the Gamecocks celebrate in Sanford Stadium.
"I'm not worried about perception," Richt said. "I'm worried about winning right now. We played a top-10 team and lost. That's what happened. We're playing game two, and we're focused on what it takes to win the next game.
"We're not focused on what people say about us. You just can't do that. It's counterproductive."
Georgia hasn't started a season 0-2 since Jim Donnan's debut as head coach in 1996. The Bulldogs haven't started out 0-3 since 1979, the year before Herschel Walker arrived, but they're hoping it doesn't get past 0-1.
"Everybody wants to see how we're going to rebound," Cox said. "We have to play well, and I think everybody knows that and is ready to do that."
Said Curran: "Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We're Georgia, and every team is going to come out and try and give us their best."