Neil's preview series rolls on.
2012 season: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Coach: Steve Spurrier, ninth season (66-37)
Last result vs. Florida: Florida 44, South Carolina 11 (2012)
Series record vs. Florida: Florida, 24-6-3
Game date: Saturday, November 16, 2013
Game location: Columbia, SC
Who Are You?
The South Carolina Gamecocks, along with Georgia, appear to be Florida's main competition in the improving SEC East. They have effectively replaced Tennessee as the third wheel in the East, winning the division in 2010 and beating divisional champion Georgia in 2011 and 2012 despite not winning the division due in part to unfair scheduling.
As time has passed, so has the annual media circus around Steve Spurrier facing his old team. But Spurrier is no longer the young "evil genius" with the high-flying offense. Over the years, his teams have slowed down, running a more balanced offense and pairing it with a stout defense. And now, in what appears to be the twilight of his coaching career, you can bet that Spurrier is gunning for one last win over his alma mater.
No Marcus Lattimore, no problem? He barely played last year, anyway, and even when he was healthy, he was nowhere near the dangerous, slashing freshman who gutted teams left and right in 2010. The only difference is that now, the guys who were technically his backups are officially starters. Brandon Wilds and Mike Davis have each proven to be solid runners, and that's exactly what either Dylan Thompson or Connor Shaw is going to need.
We all know how volatile Spurrier is with his decision-making at the QB position, but we also know that both QBs have made big plays in their Gamecock careers as well. In the receiving game, Ace Sanders is gone, but two-sport athlete Bruce Ellington is a dependable receiver. Perhaps their tight ends are even more dangerous: Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson are as big of a duo at the position as anybody.
South Carolina Offensive Strategy
The Gamecocks are going to do something similar to what the Patriots did with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, and what I expect Georgia to also do: Exploit the mismatches with Adams and Anderson when Spurrier feels like he needs yards. The rest of the time, though, the Gamecocks are going to be handing the ball off a lot — as they should, because while Davis and Wilds don't get the hype Lattimore did, they are very dangerous. I wouldn't be surprised if Spurrier tries to lull Florida to sleep with lots of runs, then tries a play-action deep ball in a crucial moment of the game.
Florida Defensive Strategy
If you're going to see Florida defenders try to force fumbles instead of making tackles at all this season, it's going to be in this game. Aside from LSU, nobody on the Gators' schedule is going to run the ball as many times as South Carolina, nor will they run it with as much success as the Gamecocks are bound to have. If Spurrier's calculations are right, Florida's vaunted defense will spend more time on the field, and no matter how great a defense is, they're all vulnerable when they're tired.
So Florida's defense will be determined to avoid that by forcing fumbles to save some energy. Of course, this can also lead to broken tackles, so I imagine D.J. Durkin will implore his unit to engage in lots of gang tackles; Ronald Powell wraps up the ball carrier while Dante Fowler, Antonio Morrison and Darrin Kitchens go for the strip. Play around with the names if you like, but it should go something like that. Also, because of the potential for a play-action deep ball, watch for Durkin to always have a safety back deep.
South Carolina Offensive Grade: B-
The defense is a little weaker than it has been in years past. Yes, the Gamecocks do still employ one of the nation's top defensive lines, featuring Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. But after that first line, it's going to be an adventure. The Gamecocks lose all of their linebackers, top safety D.J. Swearinger, and "Spur" player DeVonte Holloman. There's no doubting that Clowney is a monster, but can he really carry this entire defense on his shoulders?
South Carolina Defensive Strategy
South Carolina's going to try to do what every Gators foe will try to do: Stop the Florida running game. They know that Florida is always a run-first team, even against big names like Clowney. Like Florida's defense, the Gamecocks may go for strips to prevent long Florida drives. There's no doubt the Gamecocks remember how it all came apart for them last year in this game, with several fumbles burying them early. There's also no doubt that they'd like to try to return the favor. At this point in the season, however, Jeff Driskel may have broken out as a big-play QB — and if he has, then watch for Carolina to drop back and play some Cover 2 (and also to be prepared should Driskel take off).
Florida Offensive Strategy
If my projections are correct thus far, Florida will arrive in Columbia with an 8-1 record. They will likely have that record due to ferocious running of Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor and the running lanes opened up by their friends on the offensive line. That's probably not going to change in this game. It's not like Will Muschamp is looking for something different from his offense every week; even if Brent Pease is, the dynamic of the offense won't change.
Note, however, that run-first doesn't mean run-only. It means run first, then open it up, which is exactly what the Gators will do. Look for Pease to open it up with the play-calling and show off all the new staples in the offense: The Solomon Patton reverse we've talked about, the Driskel play-action bootleg, the Trey Burton Wildcat package, etc. Muschamp will be counting on his offense to wear out the Carolina defense so that by the fourth quarter, we'll see a replay of last year's Tennessee and Florida State games.
South Carolina Defensive Grade: C+
South Carolina Overall Grade: B-
South Carolina's linebackers vs. Jeff Driskel. No, this is not a matchup that we're going to see very often. But when a linebacker starts chasing Driskel down, either in the backfield or in the open field past the line of scrimmage, he's got to wrap up and bring him down. If they don't, Driskel could turn a third down sack into a first down or a 10 yard gain into a long touchdown.
If this were any of the past three seasons, I would say South Carolina wins this game easily (and I have picked the Gamecocks to beat Florida in each of the last three years). It's in Williams-Brice, after all, and this team does have Jadeveon Clowney. But this appears to be the weakest Gamecocks team since 2009, without Marcus Lattimore and without much proved on defense behind the front line. I still think the Gamecocks will have a 10-win season, but possibly with the SEC East on the line, the Chicken Curse — their propensity for late season collapses — will get the better of them in their toughest home game of the season.
Florida scraps and claws its way to a 7-1 SEC record, and a spot in Atlanta.
Florida 24, South Carolina 20.