From a season-long perspective, at least, this is South Carolina’s last stand. Lose this one, and the Gamecocks are guaranteed to suffer their first losing record since Lou Holtz’s 2003 squad went 5-7. But then again, it’s not clear how much that big-picture stuff really means to this team, which is very much playing for the short term — win some games, and give interim coach Shawn Elliott a better shot at the full-time job. Saturday, on the heels of two close losses, the Gamecocks have a chance to make some progress toward both.
Despite its No. 11 national ranking, Florida carries zero intimidation factor into Williams-Brice Stadium. This is a team that struggled past East Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, clinching the SEC East with a grinder of a 9-7 win over the Commodores last week. The head coach is different, and no question the results have been different, but the players almost to a man are the same ones the Gamecocks beat in the Swamp last season, and USC knows it. The disparity in records between these teams is a stark one. The disparity in confidence levels at kickoff won’t be.
First-year Gators coach Jim McElwain has been able to shoehorn much of his offense into a roster that isn’t exactly built to accommodate it. But for the first time in weeks, this isn’t a terrible matchup for USC, so vulnerable against the dual-treat quarterbacks and spread offenses it’s faced the past two games. Florida is much more limited in that regard, particularly with Treon Harris back behind center. The Gators and Gamecocks are separated by .1 yard in average total offense, by itself an indication that USC has enough to stay in this game.
It’s on the other side of the ball where the Gators are so formidable, a parting gift left by former head coach Will Muschamp. Florida is No. 2 in the SEC in total defense, tied for first in scoring defense, fourth in rush defense and second in pass defense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III anchors the best back seven in the league. But Florida could also be missing two defensive starters due to injury, and USC is suddenly rather unpredictable on offense. For the Gamecocks, it may come down to maximizing red zone chances against one of the best defenses they’ll see all year.
It’s been amazing to see the transformation of this South Carolina team over the past month. “Guys seem like they want to be here now,” said tight end Jerell Adams, and the efforts have reflected it. Despite their record and ranking, the Gators appear beatable, and an upset at home could give USC a massive opportunity against No. 1 Clemson at the end of the year. But first, the Gamecocks have to close that gap between being competitive and being victorious. It looks so small — but it’s tough to bridge nonetheless.
Florida 24, South Carolina 23
— David Caraviello