When Florida takes on South Carolina on Saturday, Steve Spurrier won't just not be on the Gamecocks' sideline — he won't be at the game. But while interim head coach Shawn Elliott's tenure with the Gamecocks has spanned just three games so far, the narrative of South Carolina's season is that the team has improved since Spurrier's departure.
There's some truth to it. But only some.
A "better" offense...
The best pieces of evidence for Elliott piloting a South Carolina turnaround have to be the team's 1-2 record under him, and relative closeness of the last two losses, both on the road against supposedly decent Texas A&M and Tennessee teams. South Carolina fought for a 35-28 loss in College Station, and a 27-24 defeat in Knoxville.
And those points — plus 19 on Vanderbilt in Elliott's first game, a win over the Commodores — show a South Carolina offense that has improved on what Spurrier put on the field at the outset of the season. The Gamecocks are averaging 23.7 points per game over their last three games, and while that isn't much, it's also a better mark than the 20.7 averaged under Spurrier — an average which benefited from a 31-point outing against UCF, one of the nation's worst teams.
But South Carolina also averaged 6.42 yards per play on Vanderbilt, the most the Commodores have given up this year. And it followed that with 6.64 against Texas A&M, which is surprisingly the second-most the more defensively-challenged Aggies have conceded in 2015. Tennessee held the Gamecocks to 4.87 yards per play, well under the Vols' season average, but the trend line is up for South Carolina's offense under Elliott.
...but with qualifications
Or it is until you look beyond total yardage and points.
South Carolina's win over Vanderbilt came in a game in which the Gamecocks forced five turnovers (they were plus-three in turnover margin on the day), and largely thanks to a touchdown by Pharoh Cooper that Vandy facilitated by putting 10 men within seven yards of the line of scrimmage and covering Cooper with just one man. And apart from that long touchdown, that ability to move the ball on the 'Dores did net just six field goal tries from Elliott Fry, two of which he missed. The Gamecocks were also 2-for-13 on third down, and somehow managed to hold the ball for less than half of the game despite outgaining the Commodores by nearly 100 yards.
Against Texas A&M, the turnover bug bit the 'Cocks. Perry Orth's pick-six in the third quarter proved to be the game-winning score, and another pick by Orth smothered a potential game-winning drive in its infancy. And without any turnovers produced by its defense, South Carolina couldn't make up for that difference in possessions — which was really what swung the game, because the Gamecocks averaged 6.64 yards per play while giving up 6.63, while both teams managed to pass for 8.0 yards per attempt and run for 5.9 yards per carry, in a stunningly even game.
And against Tennessee, it was both a crucial turnover and game-long inefficiency that did the Gamecocks in. The Gamecocks finished two takeaways to the good against the Vols, but a fumble on their final offensive drive on a play that would've gotten the team into the red zone scuttled a final comeback attempt, and an inability to move the ball or make a field goal after a first-half fumble by Tennessee cost Carolina another three points. South Carolina did erase a 17-point Vols lead — but who hasn't?
And while Elliott sticking with Orth as his starter has resuscitated the Gamecocks' passing game, it's a relative success. Orth still hasn't notched a 150.00 passer rating when throwing more than twice in a game this year, and while he did help Carolina post the second-most yards per attempt on Texas A&M's stingy pass defense (which is "stingy" in part because running on the Aggies' No. 116 run defense isn't very hard) this year, he also threw those two picks, and finished with a 113.03 rating.
South Carolina's running game isn't anything to write home about, either, and since a shoulder injury shuffled freshman quarterback Lorenzo Nuñez and his 6.38 yards per carry back to the bench in October, the Gamecocks have produced more than 4.2 yards per carry just once ... in their visit to A&M.
A slight uptick in points scored has made South Carolina look better on scoreboards, and Orth has helped the passing game. But playing Orth instead of Nuñez is trading run game efficiency for passing game efficiency, and it's not so substantial a trade that Carolina is leaps and bounds better on a play-by-play basis because of it.
The same old defense
And a marginally improved offense still isn't enough to make up for the Gamecocks' woeful defense. The Gamecocks rank No. 110 in rush defense, and are tied for No. 118 in yards per carry allowed, and those numbers may even be kind, because UCF running for 26 yards on 23 carries gets factored into them. The only Power Five teams worse at stopping the run than South Carolina are Kansas and Texas Tech.
Carolina's pass defense is better, ranking No. 62 nationally, but that ranking puts it between No. 58 Kentucky, No. 59 LSU, and No. 74 East Carolina — and while Kentucky allowed just 125 passing yards to the Gators with Will Grier throwing every pass, LSU and East Carolina each gave up over eight yards per attempt with Treon Harris handling all and some of the quarterback duties, respectively.
The Gamecocks have given up 49 plays of 20 or more yards and 59 runs of 10 or more yards (Florida's given up 28 and 39 of those, for reference), both the most in the SEC, and they rank in the triple digits in both third- and fourth-down conversions allowed.
It's hard to find anything that this team is unequivocally good at on defense; the only defensive statistic of the many listed on South Carolina's advanced stats profile on Football Study Hall that finds the Gamecocks in the top 30 nationally is fourth quarter defensive S&P+ ... which might be more impressive if you don't realize that South Carolina's only had two games go to "garbage time" all year, so its performances against the awful offenses of UCF, Missouri, and Vanderbilt are mostly factored into their fourth-quarter performance.
Florida's a bad matchup for South Carolina
And, besides, Florida knows at this point that its blueprint for success with Harris at quarterback has to be establishing the run and taking as much pressure off of him as possible — which seems eminently doable against the pliable Gamecocks run defense.
While Orth has helped the Gamecocks' passing offense out, he also hasn't seen a defense quite like Florida's — and if South Carolina can't run it on the Gators' very good run defense, they'll be forced into the third-and-long situations in which the Gators thrive.
Florida's also likely to regress back to taking the ball away after forcing no turnovers against Vanderbilt, and surely isn't likely to give away four turnovers again. The Gators hadn't previously failed to force a turnover in 2015, and have had just four takeaway-free games since 2012 — notably, the only back-to-back zero-takeaway games in that span were against Vanderbilt and South Carolina in 2013 — and hadn't coughed up more than two turnovers in a game under Jim McElwain.
South Carolina has improved under Elliott, but not nearly as much as some may fear from looking at point totals alone. But even a slightly improved Gamecocks team isn't great at much of anything, and its strengths match up poorly against Florida's.
There's reason to think Carolina can make a game of it against the Gators. But there's not a lot of reason to think that Florida should be anything but a solid favorite.