The Florida Gators have opened the season 6-0 for the first time since 2009 when they finished the regular season 12-0 before losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. They are up to 3rd in the AP poll and opened at number two in the first BCS rankings this week due mainly to the strength of the schedule they’ve played to date. As strong as that schedule has been it gets ramped up the next two weekends with back to back games against SEC East foes South Carolina and Georgia. These two weekends will likely determine the winner of the SEC East and a conference championship game berth against either top ranked Alabama or LSU.
Up first is the South Carolina Gamecocks who are coming off a tough road loss at LSU that dropped them to number 9 in the AP poll. South Carolina will be an extremely tough test for these Gators and present specific challenges for them. If the Gators hope to win on Saturday there are a few keys to victory.
First, regardless of who starts at running back for the Gamecocks it will be necessary to contain them. With Lattimore nursing a hip injury and possible lingering effects of the flu, backup Kenny Miles is expected to start and 3rd stringer Mike Davis may see time as well. Regardless of who is out there, and losing Lattimore could be huge as he was the difference two years ago, the Gators must shut them down particularly on first down. Keeping Carolina in 2nd and 3rd and long forcing Connor Shaw to make plays with his arm is exactly what Florida needs to do to have a shot. Last week LSU held Lattimore to 35 yards on 13 carries and subsequently Shaw was forced to make throws and what he did was make mistakes. Normally a cool customer when in rhythm Shaw appeared to get rattled by the road atmosphere and the LSU pass rush and turned the ball over at key points of the game.
While the Gators would like to force Shaw to make plays with his arm what they don’t want to do is let him make plays with his legs. Shaw is highly mobile and likes to run when the play breaks down or when the lanes open up, and is very adept at running the zone read. Like the 2nd half against TAMU, the Gators must be disciplined in their pass rush maintaining gap containment and setting the edge keeping Shaw from using running lanes on a draw or to scramble outside the pocket where his quickness keeps the chains moving.
At receiver, this corps is dramatically different than they have been the last few years. Typically big, tall, and strong types who can go up and get jump balls, this crew averages 5’9″ and their biggest strength is speed and quickness. Ace Sanders isn’t going to win many jump balls but what he can do is make guys miss and take it to the house. Florida’s corners are going to have to play press coverage to protect against the bubble screens and quick passes, and wrap up quickly to keep these guys from using their speed to make big plays.
On offense, they’re going to have to establish the inside run game early and often similar to what LSU did against them last week. Everything Florida does offensively feeds off the inside run game. They pound the ball inside to Mike Gillislee and then change it up with the zone read or jet sweep. Interestingly, Gillislee is generally not going to make the huge play against you. He’s not a big threat to take it to the house each time he touches the ball. But what he does do is continue to pound you, make you work to bring him down, turn no gains into three and four yard gains, and like the energizer bunny he just keeps going, and going, and going… Eventually he wears you down and his three to four yard gains become 8-9 yard gains, the chains move, and eventually they break one on you. Then just when the defense is focused on stopping him, they hit you with a perfectly executed zone read quarterback keeper, ala Burton against UTenn or Driskel last week versus Vandy, or a jet sweep with speedy Solomon Patton who has great straight line speed.
One thing I hope to see this weekend is play action. They’ve been working that inside run game all season such that all SC defenders talked about this week is what they have to do to stop it. They don’t sound all too concerned with Florida’s passing game and realistically from what the Gators have shown to this point they do not need to be. I’m hoping the lack of a passing game has been simply because they haven’t needed it and not that they cannot get it done. Hopefully, this week we’ll see them pull out some play action and make some downfield plays that have been missing since the Tennessee game. If they are to open it up though, the line will have to do a superior job of blocking with the great pass rushers that SC has led by Jadeveon Clowney and the receivers will have to start catching the ball something they failed at miserably against Vanderbilt. Personally, I think the best way to slow down and neutralize Clowney’s impact is to run at him, straight at him. Clowney’s best when he can tee off and use his quickness to rush the passer. When he’s being pushed backwards his quickness is neutralized and he tends to get a little frustrated. Receiver’s had their chances against Vanderbilt to extend drives on 3rd down but couldn’t make the simplest catches. Let’s hope playing at home will help with the concentration and execution of the receivers.
Special teams have been very special all season for both teams and this is one area where strength meets strength particularly in the punt game. Kyle Christy leads the SEC in punting and his strength is distance, hang time, and his ability to drop it inside the ten yard line. South Carolina counters with the most exciting if not the flat out best punt returner in the nation in Ace Sanders. Florida counters that with two of the best gunners in the nation in Loucheiz Purifoy and Chris Johnson. Both guys are extremely speedy but their biggest strength is how they use their hands to stave off blockers and how hard they hit when they get to the returner. Something has to give here and this may be the most anticipated matchup in this game.
Finally, we have the enigma that is The Swamp. Florida fans are a fickle lot. When the Gators are not playing well and Gator fans are unsure of what to expect this can be the quiest 90,000 + stadium in the country. When they are winning and playing well, however, this may be one of the toughest places to play in the country. I’m going to go out on a limb here to say that I think The Swamp may just be louder and more raucous this weekend than Death Valley was last Saturday night. If Connor Shaw was rattled by the road environment last weekend he may be in for another long afternoon in The Swamp this weekend. With what’s at stake in this one I think Gator fans show up, not just physically filling the stands with orange and blue, but filling the air with noise and good Gator karma.
All things considered, both teams are very evenly matched, but I think the difference will be in the running game, special teams, and the Swamp. I feel strongly that Florida will be able to establish the run as they have all season and their defense will shut down the inside run game of the Gamecocks forcing Shaw to make plays in the passing game which will lead to turnovers. The punt team keeps Sanders in check and helps win the field position battle. Finally, The Swamp will be rocking like it has only a few times in it’s history feeding the Florida players with confidence and positive energy and rattling the Gamecocks. In the end I think Florida takes care of business and keeps the juggernaut rolling towards an SEC championship game berth.