Even with South Carolina’s loss to LSU last week, Saturday’s game between Florida and South Carolina is one of the marquee games for Week 8. The Gamecocks still have national and SEC title aspirations but another loss would eliminate those possibilities. Florida ranked No. 2 in the first release of the BCS standings and needs a victory over South Carolina to strengthen its grip on the No. 1 spot in the SEC East. The Gators take on Georgia next Saturday, so wins over the Gamecocks and Bulldogs would likely assure Will Muschamp’s team a spot in Atlanta in early December.
Florida dominated South Carolina in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the Gamecocks have won the last two matchups. The Gators fell 17-12 in Columbia last season, while South Carolina won 36-14 in Gainesville in 2010.
While much of the focus for this matchup will be on the field, let’s not forget about the old ball coach’s return to the Swamp. Gainesville is certainly a special place for South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, but there’s no doubt he wants to go into the Swamp and exit with a victory. Spurrier is 3-4 in seven career games against Florida and is 1-2 in games played in Gainesville.
Storylines to Watch in South Carolina vs. Florida
Will South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore play?
In last week’s loss to LSU, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore ran for a season-low of 35 yards on 13 attempts. However, that wasn’t the only bad news, as the junior back suffered a hip injury and may not be able to play in this Saturday’s game against Florida. If Lattimore cannot go, it would be a huge setback for the Gamecocks’ offense. Of course, there’s always the thought coach Steve Spurrier is playing mind games with the Gators, and the junior back will play in Saturday’s game. Freshman Mike Davis and senior Kenny Miles - a combined 217 yards this season - will carry the workload if Lattimore cannot play. Quarterback Connor Shaw ranks second on the team with 280 rushing yards and will figure more into the rushing attack if Davis and Miles are forced into action. Florida ranks 20th nationally against the run, so it’s unlikely South Carolina would be able to have a huge day on the ground. However, Lattimore’s presence would be a huge boost to the Gamecocks’ offense and is a significant setback if he is unable to play.
Will South Carolina’s defense hold Florida’s Mike Gillislee in check?
There’s really no secret what Florida wants to do on offense. The Gators are averaging 233.3 rushing yards per game and rank 114th nationally in passing offense. Running back Mike Gillislee has been one of the nation’s best running backs through the first half of the season, recording 615 yards and seven touchdowns on 120 attempts. Gillislee rushed for 146 yards in the victory against LSU and seemed to get stronger as the game progressed. South Carolina has been stout against the run this year but allowed LSU to record 258 yards and two scores last week. In addition to trying to shore up last Saturday’s problems, the Gamecocks could be shorthanded this week. Defensive tackles Byron Jerideau and J.T. Surratt are nursing ankle injuries, while Kelcy Quarles may not play due to a shoulder problem. Additionally, South Carolina's top pass rusher (Jadeveon Clowney) is also questionable with a foot injury. At full strength, the Gamecocks’ defensive line should be able to hold their own against Gillislee and the Gators’ offensive line. However, the injuries are adding up, and Florida should own an edge in the trenches.
Which quarterback will make the most plays: Connor Shaw or Jeff Driskel?
With two of the SEC’s best defenses and running backs squaring off, it’s not crucial for either quarterback to have a huge game throwing the ball. However, it’s about timely plays and not making big mistakes. South Carolina’s Connor Shaw ranks 14th nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown only two interceptions in four SEC games. Florida’s Jeff Driskel has not thrown for more than 100 yards in each of his last two contests, but the sophomore is making big plays on the ground, including a 70-yard scamper against Vanderbilt. Neither quarterback will throw for 300 yards in this game but converting third downs and keeping drives alive with their legs will be two areas both quarterbacks can make an impact. Shaw has the edge in playmakers at receiver, which will be crucial with this matchup expected to be undecided deep into the fourth quarter.
Special teams…the x-factor
As with every big game, keep a close eye on the special teams. South Carolina punt returner Ace Sanders is averaging 17.4 yards per punt return and took one for a touchdown against Missouri. The Gators don’t have a standout on returns this season but have the edge on field goals and punts. Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis has converted 11 of 13 attempts, while punter Kyle Christy is averaging 46.4 yards per kick.
Can Florida’s defensive line take advantage of South Carolina’s offensive line?
Even though the Gamecocks are 6-1 and clobbered Georgia 35-7 two weeks ago, the offensive line is a significant question mark for this team. Line coach Shawn Elliott has shuffled some players around, but the front five is allowing 2.6 sacks a game. Florida’s defensive line seems to be getting stronger as the year goes on and it has allowed just one rushing touchdown in the last two games. With concerns on the offensive line, expect South Carolina to move quarterback Connor Shaw around the pocket. However, the Gamecocks have to be able to move Florida’s defensive front in short-yardage situations, as well as paving the way for Lattimore, Davis and Miles to gain ground on first and second downs.
Considering both teams are allowing less than 20 points a game, expect a low-scoring defensive struggle on Saturday afternoon. Injuries will play a key role in deciding the outcome of this matchup, especially with South Carolina potentially missing running back Marcus Lattimore, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and a couple of defensive tackles. The Gamecocks have the edge at quarterback, but Florida’s defense has allowed only six points in two SEC home games. Expect the Gators to once again establish their rushing attack in the second half, which will be just enough for Florida to edge South Carolina and setup a huge showdown against Georgia next week that could decide the SEC East title.
Final Prediction: Florida 20, South Carolina 17
by Steven Lassan
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