The Florida football program is chartering unknown waters this week.
Not because of torrential flooding caused by Hurricane Nicole. But for the first time in two years, the Gators are actually riding a wave of momentum heading into the final quarter of the regular season.
After last Saturday’s 41-24 victory against Texas A&M, Florida managed to snap three important streaks.
First, the Gators ended a six-game losing streak to Jimbo Fisher dating back to 2013.
Second, the Gators defense shut out an opposing SEC offense for an entire half for the first time since defeating Vanderbilt 42-0 nearly 13 months ago.
Last and perhaps most importantly, the Gators secured a road victory against a Power 5 opponent for the first time since their 31-19 win against Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium back in December 2020.
Granted the deck was stacked against Texas A&M last weekend, as the majority of their starters were out either due to injury or the flu.
But considering the Gators defense surrendered 306 total yards and 24 points in the first half alone against the Aggies, the Florida defensive players and coaches showed resilience and an ability to be adaptable by holding the Aggies scoreless with only 107 total yards after halftime.
Now sitting above .500 again with an overall record of 5-4, Florida football is one win away from clinching their fifth straight bowl appearance. However, the Gators are still on the verge of posting a losing record for the second year in a row.
In order to avoid the program’s first back-to-back losing record in the SEC in over 60 years, the Gators must first secure a win against South Carolina, aka USC Jr., at home on Saturday.
Gamecocks head coach Shane Beamer has been a pleasant surprise for the people of Columbia since taking over the coaching reins from Will Muschamp back in December 2020.
Originally predicted to finish last in the SEC in 2021, the Gamecocks instead finished 4th in the SEC East with an overall record of 7-6. Perhaps no win in Beamer’s first season was more marquee than South Carolina’s 40-17 home drubbing over the Gators.
The Gators were considered 20.5-point favorites last year against the Gamecocks, despite going on the road with a 4-4 record.
This weekend the Gators enter with the same number of losses and this time are only 8.5-point home favorites. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks travel to Gainesville with a 6-3 overall record, having won five of their last six games, including a 24-14 victory in Lexington against no. 13 Kentucky.
This year’s senior day presents several opportunities for vengeance against South Carolina.
Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler is a foe that this Gators team is well familiar with. In the 2020 Cotton Bowl, Rattler torched the Gators defense by rattling off 287 yards of total offense and four total touchdowns, leading the Oklahoma Sooners to a decisive 55-20 victory.
Once thought of as a potential no. 1 overall draft pick, Rattler’s draft stock began to take a nosedive after his Cotton Bowl performance.
After losing his starting job to Caleb Williams midway through the 2021 season due to inconsistent performances, Rattler transferred from Norman to Columbia with the hopes of making a fresh start under the guidance of Beamer and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield.
While the Gamecocks managed to earn bowl eligibility before entering the final quarter of their regular season schedule, Rattler’s play through nine games has been a far cry from his 2020 Cotton Bowl performance against the Gators. With only 1,839 passing yards and 8 touchdowns, along with nine interceptions on his resume, Rattler ranks ninth in the SEC in terms of passer rating.
As abysmal as Florida football’s defense has been this season, there is a great opportunity at hand for the players to channel their frustrations from this season, as well as from last season’s road embarrassment, against a mediocre South Carolina offense.
For starters, the Gamecocks offense ranks 11th in the SEC and 85th nationally in total yards per game (363.8). Though Rattler has been unimpressive through nine games, there isn’t much to brag about with South Carolina’s rushing attack either.
The Gamecocks rank 12th in the SEC and 86th nationally in rushing yards per game (130.4). In fact, South Carolina has managed to break past 120 total rushing yards in just two of their six SEC games this season. Part of the reason for this could be the fact that they are one of only four SEC teams in 2022 to average under four yards per carry (3.9).
In terms of scoring offense, both Florida and South Carolina are nearly dead even for the season at just over 28 points per game.
However, it is worth noting that South Carolina has faced only three defenses that are ranked inside the top 60 in points allowed. The Gamecocks are 1-2 in those games and averaged just under two touchdowns (13.6). In comparison, the Gators have played six teams ranked inside the top 40 nationally and have a 2-4 record against them while averaging 26.2 points per game.
Perhaps the biggest key to Saturday’s game will be which team can win the time of possession battle, as well control the trenches.
In Columbia last year, the Gamecocks outran the Gators by a wide margin (284-82) and held onto the ball for over 36 minutes. This season both teams rank in the bottom quarter of the country in time of possession, averaging just slightly above 28 minutes per game.
Heading into Saturday the Gators rank 23rd nationally in rushing yards per game (200.3) and 7th in rushing yards per attempt (5.6). And as bad as Florida’s defense has been in allowing opposing teams to run the ball down their throat (196.0 yards per game), the Gamecocks are not too far behind in that category either, as they are allowing 175.8 rushing yards per game.
When the Gators were a dominant national force on the gridiron, their annual conference game against South Carolina was mainly an afterthought for the majority of Gator Nation.
From the time both teams started meeting one another annually back in 1992, to Urban Meyer’s final season in Gainesville back in 2010, the Gators posted a 17-2 record against the Gamecocks. But in their past 11 meetings, the Gators are a mere 6-5 against South Carolina.
While Shane Beamer has done a commendable coaching job in Columbia, and would likely be the frontrunner for SEC Coach of the Year if not for Tennessee’s big turnaround in 2022, South Carolina is not on the same level as Florida on paper when it comes to talent. As it stands just hours before kickoff the Gators have more blue-chip prospects committed to the 2023 class (19) than South Carolina has both in the 2023 and 2022 classes combined (17).
Billy Napier previously dubbed his plan for revamping the Florida football program as “The Journey.” If Napier expects the Gators to be competing for championships in the near future, then part of this journey will need to include re-establishing dominance over USC Jr.
Coverage for Saturday’s game starts at 4 p.m. on the SEC Network. Keep up with Florida football at Hail Florida Hail.