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Columbia clash: UGA opens SEC play vs. S.C.

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Call it the NCAA Distraction Bowl.

No. 22 Georgia (1-0) and No. 24 South Carolina (1-0) face each other Saturday after a week of star suspensions, formal letters of inquiry and unending questions about NCAA infractions.

Bulldogs star receiver A.J. Green was docked three additional games by the NCAA on Wednesday for selling a game jersey for $1,000 to someone deemed an agent. A day later, South Carolina's football program received a formal letter of inquiry that it was under NCAA investigation.

Gamecocks tight end Weslye Saunders has met with the NCAA already this summer, questioned about potential agent contact. He has been suspended from the team since Aug. 23, although coach Steve Spurrier says that is not related to the NCAA probe.

That sounds like plenty to process for coaches and players preparing to open the SEC season.

"We just go out and do our thing," said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, a freshman making his first road start. "We have tremendous guys all around and all our wide receivers go out and play. I trust everyone, no matter who it is out there."

For a second straight week, that won't be Green. He was held out of Georgia's opening week win over Louisiana-Lafayette because of eligibility concerns, although that didn't stop Murray from connecting for 160 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-7 victory. Murray and backup Hutson Mason completed 19 passes to 10 different receivers.

"All of them were making unbelievable catches," Murray said. "Now, it would definitely be nice have (Green) out there. But the rest of the guys have worked extremely hard and they're ready to step up."

Georgia is appealing the NCAA's ruling on Green.

While Georgia knows the outcome of its NCAA issues, South Carolina awaits a resolution that could be weeks or months away.

Saunders was the starting tight end entering fall, a 6-foot-6 senior considered a potential first-rounder in next spring's NFL draft. However, he was questioned by the NCAA in connection with possible contact with agents and his attendance at a South Beach party earlier this year. There have been similar investigations at Alabama and North Carolina also linked to the party.

Saunders was among several players Spurrier asked to move out of a local hotel amid allegations of cheaper rates than available to the public, although the NCAA has not detailed the scope of its inquiry.

Saunders missed last week's win over Southern Miss and has not practiced with the team for almost three weeks. Spurrier has continually brushed off questions of his potential return.

The Gamecocks also played last week without starting cornerback Chris Culliver and left tackle Jarriel King. The school said Friday that Culliver and King had been cleared to play.

Spurrier said on his radio show Thursday night he could not address NCAA issues, although the investigation has "nothing to do with anything coaches did. It was some other areas, I believe, so we'll let it play its way out."

Spurrier said the Gamecocks were fully focused on Georgia. "That's all I am concerned about, that's all the players are concerned about."

The coaches won't let the Gamecocks slack off with such a crucial game ahead, quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said.

"If you have a good team that's going to go out and play hard and practice hard every day, I think they'll do that regardless of needing an alert from the coaches," he said.

The Georgia-South Carolina game is usually enough to grab attention. Seven of the past nine contests were decided by a touchdown or less -- Georgia has won five of those -- with the Bulldogs finding some amazing ways to hold on, especially at Williams-Brice Stadium.

In 2002, it was defensive lineman David Pollock's miraculous sack-strip-interception touchdown and two South Carolina fumbles near the goal line in Georgia's 13-7 win.

Two years later, the Gamecocks took a 16-0 lead before the Bulldogs rallied for a 20-16 victory. After a relatively easy 18-0 win by Georgia in 2006, the nail-biting returned in its next visit to South Carolina. The Bulldogs forced two turnovers inside their 20 in the fourth quarter to preserve a 14-7 victory that made Mark Richt 4-0 in South Carolina's home.

The Georgia coach doesn't see anything, and especially not NCAA concerns, detracting from another down-to-wire tussle.

"I think this is one of those games where you better be ready for it, because if you're not it will sneak up on you and you will find yourself in a lot of trouble," he said.