No team’s road to the SEC Championship should ever be an easy one. By definition, if you’re playing for a championship, you’ve weathered some tough storms, battled past some worthy adversaries, and, well, beaten a lot of other teams. And if the Gators are going to have to make it back to Atlanta for the first time in three years, that’s what they’re going to have to do, starting with South Carolina this Saturday.
The Gators’ impending trip to Columbia, where they’re 1-3 since Tim Tebow’s playing days, should never have been thought of as anything less than a battle- even before the Gamecocks shocked Georgia Between the Hedges. The fact that South Carolina dismantled a Kentucky team that Florida was very lucky to escape with a win against last month should have been enough to make the Gators take them seriously. So this was always going to be a trap game. With that win in Athens on their resume, though, Dan Mullen and his coaching staff has something to point to that his players can’t ignore.
Good thing, too, because that makes what could have been a trap game- a term that usually comes with a negative connotation and implies that the team who the trap is being laid for carries a great risk of losing the game- just another big road game for a program that’s become adept at winning them.
The Gamecocks’ statistics certainly don’t pop out at you. Will Muschamp’s team is averaging 409.8 yards per game, which is worse than Arkansas, the obviously tanking Houston program and even Jim McElwain’s Central Michigan squad. And South Carolina’s defense is surrendering a shade under 404 yards per game, good enough for twelfth in the SEC ahead of only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.
Watching their film won’t lead you to be any more impressed with them, either. The Gamecocks’ offense has the tendency to just disappear for entire quarters at a time, their defense buckles and collapses late in games, and their play-calling becomes ultra-conservative and predictable at the slightest hint of adversity. That’s not exactly conducive to making a bowl game.
But that’s just it- despite all their faults, shortcomings and weaknesses, the Gamecocks’ hunt for bowl eligibility is suddenly alive and well again. At 3-3, South Carolina has Florida at home, Tennessee on the road, Vanderbilt at home, a surprisingly ranked Appalachian State team at home, Texas A&M on the road and then Clemson at home left on their schedule; win half of those six games and the Gamecocks are going bowling, a notion that seemed laughable after they were shocked by border rival North Carolina in the Belk Kickoff Game. So yes, the Gamecocks still have plenty to play for, and that typically adds an additional layer of difficulty onto a road trip.
Florida, of course, is playing to reclaim the East’s slot in Atlanta, which is step one of two in their back-of-the-mind goal to reach the College Football Playoff. The difference is, that goal has no margin for error. Lose any of the remaining four SEC games and those aspirations are all but finished. Oftentimes, you’ll hear how a team was caught “looking ahead” to its following game, which in Florida’s case is their mega-showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville, or “suffering an emotional hangover” from a seismic result of either kind the previous week, and both of those mental stumbling blocks could potentially present danger for this Gator team.
Because Florida now faces four consecutive must-win games to close out its SEC slate. Perhaps the Gators could, in theory, survive a loss against Vanderbilt and still win the East at 6-2 with head to head tiebreakers over all their fellow combatants, but a black eye like that (Vandy is 1-5 with blowout losses to UNLV, Purdue and Ole Miss) and a College Football Playoff berth is out the door with that being one of now two losses on the Gators’ resume- even if Florida were to somehow rebound and beat Alabama or LSU in the SEC Championship Game. And losing to Missouri, Georgia or South Carolina, though more respectable, would cede control of the division to that team. It wouldn’t be impossible for the Gators to win the East, but it would be very, very unlikely.
Most Gator fans know this. The chatter I’ve seen on social media revolves largely around the idea that Florida has to win out to keep those national championship dreams intact. And I’m certain that at least in theory, the Gator players know it too. But there’s a big difference between knowing that in theory and playing like you know that.
Which is really just a long winded way of saying that if Florida plays the way it’s played the last two games against Auburn and LSU, the Gators will be fine… but given the drop-off in talent, that goes from a guarantee to a huge if.
The offensive line is concerning, sure, but South Carolina has no proven way to stop tight end Kyle Pitts, and though Israel Mukuamu is certainly a solid corner, I would like any of Florida’s top four wideouts against him in a one-on-one scenario. On the other side of the ball? Even without Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Carolina can move the ball, especially if quarterback Ryan Hilinski can’t run.
But because of that gaping disparity, it’s not altogether impossible to fathom the Gators letting up- just the slightest bit- and making mistakes. Maybe a Florida ball carrier thinks because it’s South Carolina, he can swap 10% of the tightness of his grip on the ball to concentrate a little bit more on delivering a truck stick move on a linebacker. Maybe Trask assumes a window is going to be bigger than it is. Or maybe a Gator cornerback underestimates the sharpness of his receiver’s route running and gets burned deep. From what I’ve been told, Mullen is as good at combatting these types of mentalities as any coach out there, but that still doesn’t bring the possibility of these mistakes down to 0% for the simple reason that these are college kids.
Ultimately, that’s what Florida will be fighting tomorrow. They know they’re the better team- because they are- but not by so much that they can mess around and play their “C” game and walk away with a win. They also know that the price they’ll pay for losing tomorrow will be the end of their national championship dreams and probably their SEC East dreams as well.
But while a loss tomorrow murks up the waters and throws the whole rest of the season into uncertainty, the most important thing that these Gator players know is what happens with a win tomorrow: they’ll be three wins away from taking back the East.