Previewing Florida’s 2017 Opponents: Game Ten, South Carolina Gamecocks

Let’s see if we can built a nice streak against South Carolina
South Carolina Gamecocks (2016: 6-7, 3-5 SEC)
Head Coach Returning starters 2016 offense 2016 defense
Will Muschamp 10 offense, 6 defense 348 YPG/20.8 PPG 407 YPG/24.8 PPG
6-7, 2nd year 94%, 59% of stat production 115th/116th in FBS 62nd/45th in FBS

All time series: Florida 26, South Carolina 8 (3 ties)

Last meeting: Florida 20, South Carolina 7

Synopsis: Florida very nearly shut out ole’ Cocky last year, a fitting tribute to Will Muschamp in his return to the Swamp. And while the Gamecocks figure to be a little better in year two under Muschamp, they still have a long ways to go before they can seriously contend for the SEC East.   But despite South Carolina’s staggering offensive woes last year, they still managed to win six games, including one over a Tennessee team that beat Florida. So make no mistake: Florida traveling to Columbia for this matchup sets up as a legitimate trap game.

Offensive breakdown: The good news for South Carolina’s offense is that they got better once they elected to burn Jake Bentley’s redshirt and hand him the keys to the offense. The bad news is that they didn’t get that much better, as a large reason for the ensuing scoring spike was a pair of games against non Power Five conference teams and one against the SEC’s worst defense in Missouri. So the jury is still out on Bentley and what he can really do with a full offseason running with the first team.

If all else fails, Bentley does have a solid supporting cast he can hand the ball off to. Headlined by Rico Dowdle and AJ Turner, the Gamecocks have a plethora of experienced tailbacks they can use in their ground and pound offense. South Carolina didn’t put up fantastic numbers on the ground last year, but with a veteran offensive line and both key contributing tailbacks returning, Kurt Roper’s offense should be all right on the ground.

The wide receiver position is where things get interesting. The Gamecocks have a pair of big play wideouts in Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, but behind them, there really isn’t much depth to speak of. Assuming these five guys all stay healthy, South Carolina may have just enough to put together an adequate offense. One injury, though, and this entire unit is in big trouble.

Offensive Grade: C+. The Gamecocks should be better offensively than they were a year ago, because they pretty much have to be. But the mess Muschamp oversaw in 2016 isn’t getting fixed in one year.

Defensive breakdown: While the Gamecocks’ offense figures to take a step forward in 2017, the defense is a complete unknown. Muschamp will have to replace both defensive ends, although coaches are high on Dante Sawyer stepping in for one of them. The Gamecocks also have a solid pair of tackles in Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones. Now it’s time for them to prove their worth. South Carolina was absolutely awful against the run last year (203 yards on the ground per game), and failure to take a major step forward in that regard will be enough to cripple the entire unit.

Skai Moore might help with that. Moore was the defense’s lone bright spot in a miserable 3-9 campaign two years ago, and now that he’s returned to full health, the Gamecocks are counting on him to once again anchor the defense as he did in 2013, 2014 and 2015. He’ll have help from fellow linebackers Bryson Allen-Williams and TJ Brunson, although there’s not a ton of depth behind them. Nevertheless, if the Gamecocks stay healthy in the front seven, there’s realistic hope that they can take a major step forward in defending the run.

The Gamecocks’ secondary is almost wholly unknown. High potential? Yes. But unknown nonetheless. They return five of their top seven statistical contributors, including dark horse All-SEC candidate DJ Smith, but they were so bad against the ground last year that who needed to throw? Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson hope that will change this year- and if they are indeed tested more, that they’ll be ready.

Defensive grade: B-. This is the quintessential “not really bad, but not really good” defense. Moore can’t do it all by himself, and though the Gamecocks should be better in run defense, it may not be enough to help them win games.

Key matchup: South Carolina front seven vs. Florida running game. Will Muschamp never bothered to recruit Jordan Scarlett while at Florida, and Scarlett showed him what a brilliant decision that was by torching Muschamp’s Gamecock defense for 134 yards on 20 carries last year. If South Carolina is to have any shot whatsoever, they need to fix the leaks in their run defense.

Florida wins if… they get their quarterback into a rhythm. Whether that’s Feleipe Franks or Malik Zaire, Florida’s quarterback can knock SC down for the count early if he gets into a groove and starts (accurately) firing bullets over the stadium. Muschamp simply doesn’t have the personnel to stop the Gators’ offense, so as long as Franks/Zaire plays the way he’s supposed to and doesn’t make mistakes, things will come naturally and Florida will cruise to victory.

South Carolina wins if… the Gamecocks can get a big game out of Jake Bentley. The Gators have a strong secondary, but South Carolina has just enough pieces in the passing game to pose a threat. If Bentley surprises and has a big day, Florida might be in trouble.

Overview: Trap. Game. Traveling to Columbia late in the season petrifies me for several reasons, not the least of which is that Will Muschamp and his Gamecocks may be fighting for their bowl hopes and thus be willing to pull out all the stops. I’d put money on the Gators winning this game nine out of ten times in a hypothetical world where this game is played ten times, but as we all know, that’s not how this works.

History is on Florida’s side here, for sure. South Carolina has beaten Florida only eight times, ever, and five of those times came with Steve Spurrier coaching them up. And in more recent, relevant history, Jordan Scarlett absolutely embarrassed Muschamp last year; with many of the same players on both sides of the ball required for this to happen returning, there’s real reason to believe this can happen again.

So I’m taking Florida to win, but it comes with a deep, clenched teeth exhale. A strange day in Columbia yields a strange football game as a result- one that the Gators’ defense seals idown the stretch.

 Projection: Florida 24, South Carolina 12

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