Game One: New Mexico State Aggies
Game Two: East Carolina Pirates
Game Three: @ Kentucky Wildcats
Game Four: Tennessee Volunteers
Game Seven: @ Louisiana State Tigers
Game Eight: vs. Georgia Bulldogs
Game Nine: Vanderbilt Commodores
GAME TEN: SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Coach: Steve Spurrier, 11th year (84-45)
2014 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC), def. Miami in Independence Bowl
Last meeting: South Carolina 23, Florida 20 in OT (2014)
All time series: Florida, 24-8-3
Streak: South Carolina 2
The skinny: Every team in the SEC East aside from Vanderbilt and South Carolina appear to be on the upswing heading into 2015. The Gamecocks appear to have engaged in the initial descent that comes with aging head coaches’ twilight days. The fall began in 2013, when South Carolina lost to a putrid Tennessee team that didn’t even make a bowl game. That loss cost them the SEC East title, and served as just a small sample size of what was to come the following year. South Carolina proceeded to plummet back to the level of mediocrity they were used to before Gainesville favorite son Steve Spurrier got there, although they did beat Georgia (again). They may not be a whole lot better this year, but that doesn’t mean the Gators can overlook them.
The Florida-South Carolina series has developed a little spice since Spurrier arrived in Columbia in 2005. He proved he’d have no problem beating his alma mater with a 30-22 upset that year, although the Gators would win the next four (including one that came via what may have been the greatest special teams play in Gator history by Jarvis Moss). But beginning with the 2010 de facto SEC East Championship Game, South Carolina has won four out of five over the Gators, proving they are not a team to be underestimated. Especially after the ghastly way they pulled off the win last year.
Returning starters: 5
The first order of business for the Gamecocks is to find a QB to replace Dylan Thompson. Spurrier figures to give the first shot to Connor Mitch, who threw for over 12,000 yards in high school, and has “improved tremendously” since arriving in Columbia. Behind him, the QB depth chart is scary thin: Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia have one combined completion. At least Mitch has two. Do remember, though, that Spurrier has quite an interesting history with quarterbacks, most of which is very good.
Carolina’s strength should be its running game. Brandon Wilds and David Williams will carry most of the running load, a role Wilds shared with Mike Davis last year. With Davis’s somewhat unexpected leap to the NFL, though, Wilds will be the Gamecocks’ number one back. He tallied 570 yards on a meager 107 carries last year, and with an increased role and a line that returns three starters from a year ago (Brandon Shell, Will Sport and Clayton Stadnick), he could have a big year. The question is how often Spurrier will use it. We’ve seen before (with Fred Taylor and Marcus Lattimore) that he isn’t afraid to run the ball a ton if he’s got a great back, but if the Gamecocks have so many problems elsewhere on their roster, he may not be able to.
The real problem comes in the form of the South Carolina receiver corps. Yes, the Gamecocks do return star wideout Pharaoh Cooper, but beyond him, there’s very limited proven ability. Top pass catchers Shaq Roland, Damiere Byrd and Rory Anderson all need to be replaced. It’s going to be up to Shamier Jeffrey, KJ Brent and tight end Jerrell Adams to help out their new QB and take some of the pressure (and the coverage) off of Cooper.
Offensive Grade: C. This offense doesn’t look the least bit scary at first glance. But underestimate Steve Spurrier at your own risk. Between Cooper and Wilds, the Head Ball Coach has enough talent to figure out a way to trot out an offense that’s at least half decent.
Returning starters: 8
The defense was solely to blame for the ugly Texas A&M loss and several even more horrid ones, so Spurrier hired Jon Hoke (his DC at Florida from 1999-2001) to try to fix it. Hoke has engineered a complete overhaul of the South Carolina defense, which will now operate out of a 4-3 base instead of toggling with three different looks that all produced disastrous results. But it won’t make a difference if the Gamecocks can’t get any decent play up front. Carolina was seventh worst in FBS last year in sacks generated, and will look for Gerald Dixon, David Johnson and JUCO transfer Marquavis Lewis to try to turn it around.
The philosophical shift on the defense caused a lot of shifting of positions, including Larenz Bryant becoming a true linebacker. He will sometimes play the hybrid Spur position, but when he moves over to linebacker on certain plays, the position will be filled by converted safety Jordan Diggs. In addition, Bryson Allen-Williams moves back to his true position at outside linebacker (strong side). With the defensive line in flummox, and also because there are only three of them, the linebacker group will be counted on heavily to produce some big plays in the pass rush.
The secondary was also affected by the switch to the 4-3. Hard hitting safety TJ Gurley has become a hybrid Spur/nickel back, meaning Kansas transfer Isaiah Johnson and Chris Moody will become the starters at safety. South Carolina has a plethora of talented corners to choose from, featuring projected starters Al Harris Jr. and Chris Lammons. But Rico McWilliams has also been highly thought of this offseason, which may mean the Gamecocks rotate their corners depending on their success.
Defensive Grade: C-. Jon Hoke has his work cut out for him, let’s put it that way. New defensive philosophies are nearly impossible to get down pat in year one, and that goes double for Carolina given the struggles they had last year.
South Carolina wins if… The Gamecocks are able to establish the running game early and are able to keep relying on it throughout the game. That mainly means it’s up to the offensive line to try to create some holes for Brandon Wilds. If they can string together some long, methodical drives that take some time off the clock and result in touchdowns, they may be able to tire out the Gator defense and make every Florida possession more crucial. Keep that up for four full quarters, and the Florida offense may falter late. At least, that’s what Carolina fans are counting on.
Florida wins if… They don’t beat themselves. That means no turnovers, no silly penalties, and no… friggin… blocked… kicks. The Gators have the better team, hands down. They also had the better team last year, yet they lost because of two embarrassing letdowns on special teams. Florida had that game won, and lost it. And this year, the Gators promise to have a better offense than the one they had last year, plus what should be a (more or less) similarly ferocious defense. Meanwhile, South Carolina appears to be trending in the wrong direction, even though there’s not a whole lot farther down than 7-6 an SEC team not named Vanderbilt, Tennessee or Kentucky can fall. Basically, Florida wins if they just play a clean, smart game.
Three things to watch for:
1) South Carolina better gets its running game going, or they’re in for a rough day against a nasty Gator secondary altogether. But the Gamecocks will have to throw the ball at some point regardless, and that’s where they’re most vulnerable. Gator defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will blanket Pharaoh Cooper with VH3 (and double team him, if necessary) and dare Connor Mitch to throw to anybody else, and while he’s looking around for another target, the Florida defensive front will be after him. This could spawn major trouble for the Gamecocks in the form of bad decisions and turnovers.
2) This very well may be Steve Spurrier’s final game against his alma mater. Between that and the fact that the Gamecocks’ season very well may be unraveling at this point, Spurrier figures to pull out all the stops in order to win. If we’ve learned nothing else from the HBC, he’s willing to do literally anything he thinks might help in order to win, both in terms of play-calling, rotating QB’s. But given the talent depleted roster he’s got this year, I don’t really know what that will entail. I’m anxious to find out.
3) The special teams battle has decided or helped decide more Florida-South Carolina games than any other annual series in recent memory. Florida needed not one, but two blocked kicks to beat South Carolina in 2006. The Gamecocks were on their way down in 2008 anyway, but a failed lateral on a kickoff return only hastened their demise. In 2012, the Gamecocks did… well, everything wrong, and lost 44-11 despite the Gators not even gaining 200 yards. And well, we all know what happened last year. The unit typically listed third in the “offense, defense and special teams” hierarchy will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
South Carolina overall grade: C. The illustrious career of the Head Ball Coach is entering the twilight zone, and his Gamecocks appear to be going down along with him. But if Spurrier has taught us anything so far, it’s that his team will always be ready to play. Just ask Georgia what that means.
Overview: Florida is going to be a better team than it was a year ago, no doubt about it. A new offense, a new leader at QB, and a new energy around the program will combine to make the difference in some of the coin flip games they just never won under Will Muschamp. But not all.
Good teams win a lot of games by being more talented than their opponent. Great teams win all (or all but one) of their games in a wide variety of ways. This Florida team is a good team, but not a great one. And so while they appear to be the more talented team, I’ve projected that they’ll also have gotten away with some big wins they aren’t supposed to have on paper, like beating Tennessee and Georgia, both of whom are favored to beat Florida as of this publication. Their luck is due to run out, and Williams-Brice Stadium seems the perfect venue for it to happen.
What will happen is that Florida, the young team that’s on the rise, will struggle against South Carolina, the dilapidated program that’s a year or two away from being reduced to the rubble it was before the Head Ball Coach arrived. As much as a win would be nice for the young Gators squad, South Carolina needs it more, and the heavy pressure Jon Hoke figures to send against the Florida offensive line will give it to them. An ugly game reminiscent of the cat fights we saw in 2011 and 2013 will go to the Gamecocks, proving that Jim McElwain’s program, while head and shoulders above anywhere Muschamp ever had them, is still a year away.
Projection: South Carolina 20, Florida 16