A big win over Vanderbilt the week before will have this Gator team sitting at 6-3, and thinking big. Even though winning the SEC and making the college football playoff is now out of the realm of possibility, Florida would still have a lot to play for should they be 6-3 coming into this game as I predict. A 10 win season would still be a possibility, and Will Muschamp’s job is likely in peril at this point.
And, you know, there’s the opponent.
It’s the Head Ball Coach. It’s a divisional rival. It’s the South Carolina Gamecocks.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
2013: 11-2 (6-2 SEC) Capital One Bowl Champions (def. Wisconsin)
Last Meeting (2013): South Carolina 19, Florida 14
All Time Series: Florida 24, South Carolina 7 (3 ties)
Coach: Steve Spurrier, 10th year (77-39)
Who Are You?
South Carolina is a sort-of rival that’s played alongside- and frequently lost to- the Gators in the SEC East since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, but it’s only been a meaningful game since Steve Spurrier took over the program in 2005. The Gamecocks upset Florida in Spurrier’s first year, Florida returned the favor with a game winning block of Ryan Succop’s field goal attempt the following year, and since those two games, this rivalry has been known for lots of close, exciting games, aside from Gator beat downs of 56-6 and 44-11 in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
But lately, South Carolina has been quietly among the nation’s most successful teams. They’re one of a small handful of schools to win 10 or more games in each of the last four years, and one of an even smaller handful to win 11 in each of the past three. They’ve sort of broken the Chicken Curse, a term for major collapses the second half of the season, but there’s still always that one silly loss that ruins everything: Kentucky in 2010, Auburn in 2011 or Tennessee last year. Had the Gamecocks won those two games, they could have easily found themselves in BCS Bowl games each year.
The Gamecocks do lose a handful of players on defense, but the schedule sets up quite nicely for them this year. Other than what figures to be a loss on the road at Auburn, all their big games are at home; they draw Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee on their home turf. The only other losable game that isn’t is at home… is in the Swamp.
Returning Starters: 9
Watch out. Steve Spurrier could finally have the offense that he’s always dreamed about in Columbia. Technically, the Gamecocks return nine starters, but that’s skewed when you realize how much action Dylan Thompson saw as a backup the last couple of years, including the game winning touchdown in the Outback Bowl over Michigan two years ago. Without Connor Shaw, Thompson will step in as the full time starter, and he will be the key to this offense.
He’ll have tons of help, too. Mike Davis, a preseason all American selection, is capable of burning defenses all by himself. The Gators will really need to be careful with him. He’s small (5’9) but he packs a wallop (223 lbs.) and has a very strong line to block for him. Corey Robinson and AJ Can (another preseason All-American) return to their starting tackle and guard positions, respectively, to provide senior leadership on the left side of the line, and Brandon Shell and Cody Waldrop return to their right tackle and center positions, respectively. Altogether, that’s 89 starts for this unit combined.
Thompson will have some talented receivers to work with as well. Carolina brings back their top three receivers from a year ago (Shaq Roland, Demiere Byrd and Nick Jones) in addition to their dangerous tight end Rory Anderson. That’s just shy of 3,000 receiving yards between the four of them.
Offensive Grade: A-
It all falls to Dylan Thompson. If he’s able to do his job, South Carolina could have the best offense in the SEC. If not, the offense could struggle. But even without Thompson, Mike Davis is enough of a threat to make me worried about this South Carolina offense.
Returning Starters: 5
Steve Spurrier better hope that his offense can win him some games, because his defense sure won’t be able to (sound familiar, long time Gator fans?). The Gamecocks lose nearly their entire front line: one man wrecking crew Jadeveon Clowney, along with fellow defensive linemen Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, are now in the NFL. The lone returning starter for the Gamecocks’ four man front is senior JT Surratt.
The second level of the defense is more promising. Cocky returns middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis and SPUR (a sort of hybrid linebacker-pass rusher position) Sharrod GoLightly, who earned all-SEC honors last season. The question for this front seven is the pass rush. GoLightly will be counted on heavily to apply some pressure- he’s really good at it, as you may have figured by his all-SEC selection- but that means he’ll likely be double teamed. Other guys need to step up and create some push, or this defense will struggle.
Then there’s the secondary, where South Carolina’s really in trouble. They do return both safeties (Chaz Elder and Brison Williams) but they do not have a cornerback on the roster who’s ever started an SEC game. If the defense plays to stop the run, and they get fooled and it’s a pass, leaving their new corners in one on one situations, Steve Spurrier is going to turn his head and hope for the best.
Defensive Grade: B-
This isn’t a bad defense by any means, but with heavy personnel losses up front and in the secondary, it’s hard to imagine the defense being anywhere near as stout as it was the last couple years.
Florida Key: Offense
The Gators must pick on the Gamecocks’ smaller cornerbacks. The strength of this South Carolina defense will be its run defense, so while it’s obviously important to get the run established, when Florida needs big yards, they’d better try to get them through the air.
Florida Key: Defense
Make somebody other than Mike Davis beat you. Namely, Dylan Thompson. He’s been extremely up and down throughout his career. This defense needs to make him consistently beat them through the air. If Davis gains more than 80 yards or so on the ground, the Gators are probably going to lose.
Key Matchup: Special Teams
I can’t remember the last time South Carolina didn’t make at least one huge special teams error in Gainesville. 2012 featured a fumbled kickoff, a fumbled punt, and a blocked field goal. 2010 featured Andre Debose running the opening kick back for a touchdown and Spencer Lanning clanging an extra point off the upright (though South Carolina won that game handily). The game before that, the Gamecocks tried to be cute and threw a lateral on a kick return, which was fumbled and picked up by Florida. And we all know what happened in 2006- Jarvis Moss blocked an extra point and a field goal to preserve a 17-16 Gator victory. Can South Carolina manage to not screw things up in such an enormous fashion again?
What Does This Game Mean?
Depending on how generous Jeremy Foley feels in the aftermath of a defeat to his former coach on his home turf, a loss may or may not spell the end for Will Muschamp. The case for his firing with a loss to South Carolina would be a compelling one: Florida would have four losses or more three times in a four year span for the first time since the last 1980’s, and with a trip to Florida State looming, it’s quite possible that Florida would finish with five losses. And, you know, there was 2013.
On another note, if Florida is somehow still alive in the SEC East race coming into this game with three losses, that’s out the door too. No team has ever won their division with four losses, as it’s mathematically impossible unless all teams in the division finish at 4-4. And even then, only one team out of seven would get it. Bottom line: forget it.
But now let’s talk about the power of a win.
Should the Gators take down South Carolina in the Swamp, Muschamp’s job is probably safe, and the only conceivable way he’d get fired with a win in this game would be if his team turned around and lost to Eastern Kentucky the following week. South Carolina’s a respectable program, and in one year Florida would go from 4-8 to 8-4 at worst, and possibly 9-3 pending the result of a bowl game. Now, Muschamp’s job would certainly be in jeopardy to start 2015 all over again, but at least he’d get that chance to coach another year.
It’s also the point in the season where we can start talking about the Gators’ bowl outlook. An “access” (meaning ex-BCS) Bowl is probably out of the question with three losses, but the Gators could still play their way into the Outback or maybe even the Capital One Bowl by running the table from this point forward. A loss, however, and the Gator Bowl becomes the reach goal.
The only possible way the Gators are not going to come into this game with Will Muschamp riding the hot seat is if Florida miraculously finds themselves at 9-0, or maybe 8-1. Anything less, and Muschamp knows he’s possible coaching for his job in 2015. Yes, if Florida comes into this game at 7-2, Muschamp is probably very nervous, because with a trip to Florida State to end the season, the Gators could very well find themselves at 8-4 if they lose this game. So Florida’s going to come out with some fire in this game.
And from an objective point of view, I have a bad feeling about South Carolina in this game. I really do. I mean, they have exactly one win in Gainesville. Ever. The stars seem to align perfectly for a Gator upset: the Gamecocks’ defense is greatly weakened, and while Mike Davis may be a Heisman Trophy candidate, Florida’s got the defense to stop him. The fact that the Gators’ one proven strength is the perfect kryptonite for South Carolina’s best offensive player would have me really nervous if I was a Gamecock fan. The Gamecocks always lose a game they shouldn’t, and this year, it’s going to be in the Swamp.
Make no mistake. South Carolina is my pick to win the SEC East. But their history of ineptitude in the Swamp and their traditional second half of the season collapses make me lean toward the upset. The Gators’ offense will have their moments against a weakened Gamecock defense; however, they’ll be trailing for most of the game. But with his coaching job very much on the line, Muschamp’s pride and joy- his defense- bails him out late. Kelvin Taylor plows in for the go-ahead touchdown with five minutes left and Vernon Hargreaves seals the deal with a pick six in the final minute.
Projection: Florida 30, South Carolina 20