Game 1: Miami Hurricanes
Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats
Game 4: Tennessee Volunteers
Game 6: Auburn Tigers
Game 7: LSU Tigers
|SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (2018: 7-6, 4-4 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Will Muschamp||7 offense, 7 defense||426 YPG/30.1 PPG||425 YPG/27.2 PPG|
|4th year (22-17)||69%, 65% of stat production||43rd/57th in FBS||89th/66th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 27, South Carolina 9 (3 ties)
Introduction: For just the second time since 1996, the Gamecocks are not the final SEC team on Florida’s regular season slate. That late season stage has occasionally made for some drama, such as when Carolina spoiled Florida’s chances of winning the SEC East in 2005, beat up Florida 36-14 for the East crown in 2010 and hammered the final nail into Will Muschamp’s coffin in 2014. And of course, this series has had the added drama of South Carolina digging through Florida’s recycling bin not once but twice to find its next head football coach. Historically, though, while the Gamecocks have unquestionably passed Tennessee on the Gators’ list of rivals, this series has been all Florida. Now, the Gators appear to be on the rise with Dan Mullen, while, with a schedule that would frighten even Satan, ole’ Cocky is about to find out what it has in Will Muschamp, once and for all.
There aren’t too many four year starters in college football at any position, much less at quarterback, but it looks like we’re going to witness one with Carolina signal-caller Jake Bentley. The good news for South Carolina is that he’s capable of making things happen, like the 7,385 yards and 54 touchdowns he’s thrown for in two and a half years as the starter. The bad news is that some of those “things” benefit his opponent, like the 30 interceptions he’s thrown in that time span- including 26 in his last 26 games. The other knock on him is that he’s often at his worst against better competition, last year’s Clemson game aside. He’ll need to put it together more consistently if Carolina is to have a prayer of making a bowl game this year.
He’ll also need help in the running game. South Carolina does return AJ Turner, Mon Denson and Rico Dowdle from a year ago, but that has negligible value because the Gamecocks finished 93rd in FBS in rush yards a game last year. Part of that is due to the offensive line, and with four players back who saw meaningful minutes last year, the hope is that the ground game will take a large step forward in 2019.
The departure of Deebo Samuel leaves a mammoth crater for offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon and the passing game, as his versatility took a lot of pressure off of Bentley. There are a couple of playmakers here, such as Bryan Edwards (55 catches, 842 yards and seven TD’s in 2018) and Shi Smith (45 catches, 673 yards and four TD’s), but because of the amount McClendon wants to throw the ball, more will need to step up. Look for Josh Vann, Randrecous Davis, and tight end Kiel Pollard to be the first guys to do so.
Offensive grade: C-. South Carolina might be in over its head offensively. There’s talent here, but it’s parceled out very modestly and it’s a coin flip of a proposition that Bentley has already peaked. Unless someone emerges from that running back stable and becomes the next Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks will struggle to move the ball.
As Will Muschamp always says, the SEC is a line of scrimmage league. And at least defensively, he appears to be in good shape. DT Javon Kinlaw returns for his senior campaign to try to anchor the defensive line once more in both the run and pass defense. He’ll team up with DJ Wonnum, who’s back from a season-killing ankle injury in 2019 and who will look to recapture his 2017 form, when he led the Gamecocks with six sacks and finished fourth on the team with tackles with 57.
South Carolina’s linebacker corps was nothing short of awful last year, though, perhaps never fully recovering from the loss of Skai Moore. The Gamecocks were gutted on the ground last year to the tune of nearly 200 yards per game, second worst in the SEC only to Mississippi. They’ll need a much improved year from TJ Brunson at the MIKE position while they mix and match different players at the outside spots, or the middle level of the defense could let the whole team down.
The Gamecocks should be fine in the secondary, to a degree. Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu are both big, physical and fast corners and could rival Florida’s CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson for the best CB1-CB2 tandem in the SEC. But both starting safeties from last year will need to be replaced, and there isn’t a ton of depth behind Horn and Mukuamu at corner, leaving the Gamecocks particularly vulnerable to the injury bug- or simply a five-wide offensive set.
Defensive grade: C+. Where they’re good, they’re really good; where they’re bad, they’re really bad. The middle ground between an A and an F is a C, so that’s what I’m tempted to give this defense. Because of the exceptional talent of Horn and Mukuamu, and because of Travaris Robinson’s pedigree for growing cornerbacks on trees, I’m swayed to bump it up to a C+.
Key Matchup: South Carolina’s run defense vs. Florida’s run offense. Even if Horn and Mukuamu can lock down the Gators’ top receivers, Florida has a decided advantage over Muschamp’s defense with its ground game. The Gamecocks were atrocious against the run last year, and if they don’t demonstrate to be appreciably better in this aspect, Florida could total a ridiculous number of rushing yards and run South Carolina right into the ground- and out of the game. Of course, success on the ground opens up the play-action, and if it gets to that point, this game won’t be close for too long.
Florida key to victory: harass Jake Bentley and force him into mistakes. The Gators aren’t really outmanned anywhere on the field by South Carolina, but if they let Bentley work his way into a groove and get hot, this game could be worrisome for longer than it should be. The way to ensure that doesn’t happen? Take advantage of the strength on the defensive line, with guys like Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, set up camp in the Gamecocks’ backfield and chase Bentley around for a couple of hours. At the very least, sacking him will create unfavorable down and distance situations that this Gamecock offense is not structured to overcome, and at best, this can create some very short fields for the Gators’ offense.
South Carolina key to victory: run the ball effectively, and consistently. It’s not even because they need to score points to win, and this is probably the more reliable of their two methods to do it. Whatever else happens on the field, South Carolina has no chance in this game- none- if they can’t move the sticks and give their defense a rest. And beyond that, the odds start to shift toward the Gamecocks if they can shorten the game and bleed large chunks of clock each time (or most times) they have the ball.
Fun fact(s): A common misconception about the Gators is that never, in over a century of history, have they had an undefeated season. Like most things that rival fans tend to say about Florida, though, this just isn’t true. Meet the 1911 Florida Gators football team, the first, and so far, only, team in school history to complete a football season without a single blemish in the loss column. This was also the first year that Florida called its football program the “Gators,” but that’s a story for another day.
Now, what does this have to do with South Carolina? Well, following a 15-3 win over the Citadel in the season opener, the Gators and Gamecocks met for the first time ever in Columbia’s Melton Field. Florida scored first on a touchdown from Earle Taylor, and with the PAT, led 6-0 (touchdowns were worth five points back then). South Carolina countered in the second quarter to knot the score at 6-6- and it stayed that way until the final gun. With overtime another three quarters of a century away from being installed, the game ended in a 6-6 tie. The Gators would run the table from that point on, including pulling off a daring road upset at Clemson, to finish the 1911 season 5-0-1: five wins, zero losses, one tie. See that, FSU fans? Zero losses. Which means zero defeats. Which means an undefeated season. However, that tie with South Carolina did cost Florida its first (and to this day, its only) perfect season- meaning Florida has never completed a season with zeroes in both the loss and the tie columns.
Also worth noting about that 1911 game in Columbia was that it was the first time the Gators ever played any of the other thirteen current SEC members. Though Florida would join the SEC in 1933 and forge deep, storied rivalries with the likes of Georgia, Auburn, LSU and Alabama, and though South Carolina wouldn’t join the SEC until 1992, that was actually the Gators’ first exposure to the SEC. So technically, South Carolina, not Georgia or Auburn, is Florida’s oldest SEC rival.
I’d feel worse for South Carolina if they didn’t keep relying on Florida’s leftovers to guide their football program, but it’s not even a point of discussion that the Gamecocks’ 2019 schedule is less than favorable for them. And not counting their two cupcake games against Charleston Southern and Appalachian State, hosting Florida is one of the easier parts of it. The rest of their schedule includes hosting both of the participants in last year’s national championship game, road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M that could get downright ugly, and another road trip to face a Kentucky team they haven’t beaten since 2013.
So between that and all the chatter about Will Muschamp’s job security, the Gamecocks will need this game quite badly. Even though I’ve projected Florida to enter this game fresh off of back to back losses to Auburn and LSU, the desperation factor has to go to South Carolina. And while nobody will mistake this Gamecock team for the teams with Jadeveon Clowney or Marcus Lattimore, it’s a team that’s good enough to knock you down if you screw around. Bentley may have leveled out, but he’s still not a bad passer, per se, and the Gamecocks’ top corner tandem can really frustrate you and limit your production through the air.
That said: South Carolina has way, way too many question marks to think that picking them to beat Florida is a good idea. Will Muschamp may be as adept with X’s and O’s as anybody in the game, but his teams have too long a history of falling flat in big moments for it to not be factored into the equation here. We saw Dan Mullen outcoach Muschamp and Robinson late in last year’s game, and with a better Gator team that needs to win this game even more than last year’s team did, expect that to happen again- but for a much longer percentage of the game. To sum all that up: Florida kicks South Carolina’s teeth in and rights its own ship heading into the pre-Georgia bye.
Projection: Florida 40, South Carolina 13