Up to a certain point, it’s not hard to see parallels between South Carolina and Florida this year.
The Gamecocks’ best two wins were their first two: taking down NC State 35-28 and breezing past Missouri 31-13. Their best playmaker, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, went down for the year in their third game, and the offense hasn’t been the same since. Florida has also suffered from missing top talent on offense.
South Carolina lost to Kentucky by ten, which is roughly how UF would’ve fared if the Wildcats didn’t leave a receiver uncovered twice. The Gamecocks have a one-score loss to Texas A&M, just like Florida. Their 34-27 win over Vanderbilt is less impressive than it appears, not unlike the Gators’ 38-24 win over the Commodores. Their one-score win over Tennessee required last-second heroics — a goal line stand instead of a deep pass, in their case. If UF didn’t take the first quarter off and could’ve converted red zone attempts into points, their game against Georgia probably would’ve resembled South Carolina’s 24-10 loss to the Bulldogs pretty strongly.
The 2017 Gamecocks’ remaining two games sound like they could’ve been Florida games from the past two coaching regimes. South Carolina squeaked out a one-point win over Louisiana Tech, while their point total in a 48-22 win over Arkansas ballooned thanks to three non-offensive touchdowns.
In short, if Florida’s roster was less in tatters and the head coach hadn’t talked his way out of the job, the Gators would look a lot like how South Carolina does right now. That’s cold comfort considering how much higher UF’s expectations were this year, but there is no reason why a Gator team properly prepared to play couldn’t win in Williams-Bryce.
That is a big “if” of course. Can the remaining staff motivate the players? Will David Reese calling out a lack of effort last week get his teammates to give it their all? I’m not sure those answers can be known until we see what happens after kickoff.
Taking the optimist’s view that the Gators will actually show up and give it their best shot, here are the matchups to watch.
After rushing the ball fairly well against Georgia, the Gators couldn’t get much of a run attack going against Missouri. Blocking is one of the first things to go when a team comes out flat, of course.
Losing Brett Heggie for the season hurts badly in this regard, but Florida should be able to grind out some yards on the ground in this one. South Carolina doesn’t give up many big run plays, but they do let opponents move the ball a fair bit.
Malik Zaire may have some good opportunities in that regard, assuming Doug Nussmeier is willing to call some plays that get him on the move. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond carried the ball 15 times for 103 yards (6.9 yards per carry) against the Gamecocks. Kentucky’s Stephen Johnson went for 86 yards on six rushes, including a 54-yarder. Carolina did keep Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano in check with ten carries for 44 yards, but Zaire is much more of a throwing threat to keep the defense honest.
Speaking of throwing, Zaire will have a tougher time against the Gamecock back seven than he did against Mizzou’s. The story there is similar to the Carolina rush defense: they’ll let you move the ball but won’t give up a ton of big plays. Connecting on big, downfield plays was what Zaire did best last week. Some of that was Mizzou sitting on the short stuff in a way Carolina won’t, but he’ll need to be careful. Senior cornerback JaMarcus King is tied for the conference lead in passes broken up with ten on the season.
On the other side of the ball, South Carolina isn’t very good at the rushing game. Accordingly, it doesn’t run as often as you’d guess for a Will Muschamp team. They rank in the triple-digits nationally both in their rate of running the ball on normal downs and in obvious passing situations. They’re 114th by running on just 25.6% of passing downs; Florida, by comparison, is 19th by running in 43.6% of those situations.
The Georgia game was a microcosm of Florida’s run defense this year. The Gators held the Bulldogs in check on the majority of downs, but they also gave up some really long runs. Luckily for this week, South Carolina doesn’t generate many big plays with the run. The Gamecocks only have nine runs of 20+ yards — four fewer than Florida does — and one was by Samuel before he got hurt. If the effort is there, UF should do a reasonably good job against the rush.
Florida’s pass defense has the same story as its run defense. It’s solid on a down-to-down basis but will give up too many big plays. South Carolina’s pass attack is pretty mediocre in both efficiency and explosiveness. They can put three decent threats out there in versatile tight end Hayden Hurst, the reliable Bryan Edwards, and promising freshman Shi Smith. Hurst will be the one to watch, as he’ll have a chance to make some headway against the UF linebackers’ inept pass coverage.
It’s possible to envision a path to victory where Zaire keeps the ball moving with his legs and a controlled passing game while the defense manages not to have too many breakdowns. The line on the game has come down to South Carolina being favored by 5.5, which isn’t too far from a tossup once you consider home field advantage is generally worth about three points to Vegas.
This game will be there for the taking if Florida wants to play hard for it. Even down as many players as they are, the Gators absolutely can earn their second road win of the year. They just have to want it. Hopefully we’ll see them go for it.