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Florida vs. South Carolina, Sunday Rundown: Gators sweep the East by prevailing late

Florida had to win Saturday to sweep the SEC East. With some late heroics, the Gators made it happen.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

As always, the Sunday Rundown is intentionally written with first-take thoughts on a Florida game, and without a second look at tape. For Florida's 24-14 win over South Carolina, I watched from my apartment, on a lagging stream, because WatchESPN is great for watching "live" sports but terrible for watching live sports.

How Florida Won


I know I already dedicated the lede of Saturday's recap to it, but Kelvin Taylor really did win that game for Florida.

Yeah, he had to get a good play call, an unexpected draw on third and eight with just minutes remaining. Sure, his blocking being good for once was helpful. And yes, South Carolina's defense played a part in Taylor getting loose.

But Taylor did what he was recruited to do: Find a hole with his fantastic vision, give a little wiggle when he got to the second level, and run as far as he could. He salted away this win with a run that wasn't even a touchdown run, even after spending an unusually long time on the sideline as Florida rotated in Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkrite; he deserved to punch in the score afterward.

And he's not going to go down as an all-time Gators great, maybe not even on par with his father Fred — but Kelvin Taylor has absolutely made the most of the opportunities afforded by the Florida teams around him.

I have no problem being very happy for him in that regard.


Three quarters of dominance

For three quarters on Saturday, Florida's defense was phenomenal.

South Carolina had 44 yards before the fourth quarter. 44 yards! The Gamecocks' offensive improvement was, as I hinted, really not a dramatic one, but any team that can hold another under 50 yards for three quarters of play is doing something right.

And, yeah, the fourth quarter wasn't as good. We'll get to that. But Florida was in position to reduce an offense that has some decent players and had been productive of late to rubble. I liked that a lot.

Jordan Cronkrite saved Treon Harris

That touchdown pass Cronkrite yanked away from Chris Lammons should've been picked. It was a bad throw, and maybe not even the right throw. But Florida's third-string running back made a great play on the ball and turned what should have been another bad mistake by Harris into the biggest win of the day.

And can you imagine what the reaction to Harris on Twitter would've been had Florida went to the half up just 7-0 after that TD turned into a pick if he had gone ahead and thrown the other one before halftime? Yikes.

Jim McElwain, champion of mind games

On one hand, this is brilliant shade.

And, yes, at least one FAU fan took it that way. But I took it to be McElwain's most recent bit of motivational chatter: If every FAU player wanted to be a Gator, surely they want to beat the Gators, too?

Lou Holtz never met an underdog he couldn't turn into the 1985 Chicago Bears. McElwain may be nearly as good at finding reasons to scare his players straight.


Big, dumb Jim McElwain football

Florida has had a couple of comeback wins this season: East Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt all led the Gators in the second half in The Swamp, with Tennessee and Vandy both doing so into the fourth quarter. But Florida has, far more often, been put in the position of defending a lead.

And the Gators have done that very well.

East Carolina took a lead after Florida led 10-7. Tennessee led by 13 twice after Florida led that game 7-0. LSU led by 14 at two different scores after a 7-0 lead. Vandy struck to take a 7-6 lead after a 6-0 edge.

But Florida came back to win two of those games, and tied the third, and those are basically the only times Florida hasn't led this year. The Gators haven't trailed by more than 14 points at any point in 2015, and they have erased every lead taken against them except LSU's final edge.

More importantly, though, those four leads are the only ones Florida has lost through 10 games. The Gators haven't lost one of 10 or more points, and only lost one in the second half against ECU, getting it back just three minutes later.

There's going to be some talk of a "winning formula" for Florida this week, I think, especially given that Florida Atlantic is no scary sight for most fans, but it's not a new one — these Gators are winning like Will Muschamp always wanted his Gators to, with defense that is sound as a baseline and suffocating at best, a largely balanced offense, and mostly mistake-free football.

The difference, this season, has been adequate and largely benign quarterback play that enables a passing game to provide balance to a pounding running game, whether from the much-missed Will Grier or the inconsistent Harris, who still has flashes of excellent play. Jeff Driskel was also adequate and largely benign in 2012; it was mostly when he (or other Florida QBs) truly blew up, as in 2012's two losses, or his 2013 loss to Miami, or ... well, you get the point, that Florida's foundation of sound defense and balanced offense collapsed under the tonnage of miscues.

I don't think Jim McElwain really wants to play this way. Certainly, while he's a Nick Saban "disciple" in some senses, and did work under Saban more recently than Muschamp had, he also has John L. Smith to thank for much more of his coaching ken, and has shown a flair for more spectacular offense for years, at Alabama and Colorado State. And we saw glimpses of that at Florida with Grier around this year.

But this is maybe the best way that Florida can play right now, especially with Harris taking snaps. And the successful execution of the 2012 formula has produced a season that's been eerily like that 2012 season.

Big, dumb Will Muschamp football was much-maligned in his four years at Florida. But one thing that was (and remains) mostly lost in his tenure falling apart is that it really did work, at least for the most part, for one glorious year of unexpected excellence.

I don't really mind this repeat of that year.

Both Good and Bad

But it's still 2012 Florida 2.0

There are similarities and differences between the 2012 and 2015 Gators.

2015 Florida survived four turnovers (and one on downs) against Vanderbilt, but Vanderbilt's offense was essentially Florida's from its 2013 trip to South Carolina, and played into the Gators' hands as a result. 2015 Florida survived two turnovers against the Gamecocks, but South Carolina's offense wasn't much better.

The one time the Gators have been burned by a passing game in 2015, they lost — but it was arguably because of a running game that could play keepaway. 2015 Florida hasn't necessarily faced an elite team — Mississippi and LSU both were at the time, but their bodies of work suggest otherwise — either, but it's also been better against lesser competition, for the most part, than that team, with its close games at least not requiring blocked punt touchdowns to swing them.

2012's Gators didn't survive turnovers, but also didn't generally commit them. That Florida team knocked off a handful of eventual 10-win teams, and bottled up the eventual Heisman winner; it had one of the better résumés for a one-loss team in the BCS era, not just that year. In fact, there's a very good argument, one I plan on making this week, that this team is significantly inferior to the 2012 Gators, and not just because Harris has dragged down its offensive performance.

But 2015 Florida has the same record, and many of the same strengths, and many of the same weaknesses, and it can be almost uncanny how similarly the games go. This team's SEC East title despite a loss is owed to playing LSU on the road and playing a far inferior Georgia team. It's weird: One might even think that Muschamp's players are capable of doing what they were recruited to do, and a little more.

That truth is going to bug some Florida fans, no matter how the final few games of this season play out, and those of us who thought that Muschamp's process was better than the consensus held even though his results were poor over three of his four seasons with the Gators may be justified in doing some narrative correction as a result.

It would be one heck of a lot neater if Florida were simply playing much better and far differently under McElwain: All the blame for the sins of the past would go to Muschamp, and all the joy of glimpses at a bright future could be credited to McElwain.

That's not what's happening, though.

Needs Improvement

Florida's offensive line is still not good

This is where I am with Florida's offensive line: It's not consistently good enough at anything for me to say it's absolutely and definitively good at anything, but it's good enough in fits and starts to win games.

Harris had plenty of time plenty of times on Saturday, but he also had to duck rushers fairly often. Taylor got that 53-yarder based partly on good blocking, but he also got 52 yards on the other 21 carries, and that really wasn't his fault. (It's especially troubling to not run on South Carolina: Only UCF (which is UCF) ran for fewer yards and fewer yards per carry on the Gamecocks this year than the Gators did on Saturday.)

And because the offensive line's best game of run blocking happened two weeks ago, it feels like this is a bit of regression for a unit that has made many, many strides. Because Taylor and Scarlett and Cronkrite have all shown so much in 2015, it feels a little disappointing that they run behind a leaky line.

Any in-season regression, though, is mostly to a level of play we would have loved to be sure Florida would have at the beginning of the year. And there's no great reason to believe anything about this year's line is really going to carry over to next year's, when as many as three starters could turn over.

So, really, we're just hoping this line can hold out and do enough to make a win over FAU easy, and make Florida competitive in what should be three (or, maybe, four) games against better competition after that. I don't think asking for that alone is too much to ask, but I may be wrong.


When Treon Harris is bad, he's terrible

I feel bad about putting a QB who made a few nice throws and accounted for 272 total yards in Embarrassing, but this is mostly about the plays that produced his two interceptions and the 14 incompletions. When Harris misses a receiver, or can't decide where to go with the ball, or misreads the defense, it's a disaster waiting to happen.

Harris has gotten better, if only marginally, at hitting open receivers when he's not under pressure, and that's heartening improvement. But that's a low bar, one that pretty much every starter-caliber quarterback at an FBS school hits. And I really do think that baseline competence that Florida needs from him is only as important — and maybe less — than a minimum of mistakes that Florida also needs from him.

I may be on an island here, but I'd take Harris going 23-for-30 and only throwing for 160 or so yards with no TDs or picks over Harris throwing for 250 but missing on 14 passes and throwing two picks. (His second pick on Saturday, in fairness, should've been ruled a fumble.) If Harris isn't making mistakes, Florida's probably not giving up cheap scores, and I trust Florida's defense not to give up enough well-earned scores to win games.

If he is making those mistakes, it's putting a whole lot of stress on the Gators. And if we're talking about 2012 parallels, that's the thing I fear most.

Halloween is over, but the tricks aren't

Florida has allowed opposing passers to post a 103.95 passer rating this year, which is good for 10th nationally.

Florida has allowed South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper and Tennessee's Jauan Jennings, both wide receivers, to post a 745.00 passer rating against the Gators this year, which is really freakin' terrible.

I get being outfoxed by Tennessee's fake, too, which was well-planned and well-staged; I don't get falling for Cooper, who had already thrown three passes this year, being used as a passer, especially in the fourth quarter of a tight game. That fake caught Florida so off-guard that Jordan Sherit, of all people, was forced to turn and try to cover Perry Orth.

At this rate, Florida State's gonna run three puntrooskies and have all three work.

Please no.