GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It seems so long ago now that Florida’s players were talking about a lack of national respect and hoping to push the team into the College Football Playoff picture.
A crushing 31-10 loss at Arkansas last weekend dealt the Gators all kinds of setbacks.
They fell 12 spots in the AP Top 25 poll to No. 22, dropped out of the CFP rankings entirely and incurred a slew of significant injuries that will impact the team moving forward.
Quarterback Luke Del Rio, whose job was in jeopardy anyway, is out with a shoulder injury. Both starting linebackers, Jarrad Davis (knee) and Alex Anzalone (broken arm), are sidelined, as are center Cam Dillard (knee) and defensive end CeCe Jefferson (foot).
The Gators (6-2, 4-2 SEC) were bruised physically and mentally last weekend in Fayetteville, Ark., and yet they still have plenty at stake the rest of the season.
Florida continues to control its path to the SEC championship game in a muddled East division, needing at least one win to make it happen — this Saturday at home against South Carolina and next weekend at LSU.
The Gamecocks (5-4, 3-4) visit The Swamp on a unique senior day for Florida, as the program will honor those players while opposing the coach who brought them to Gainesville.
Will Muschamp, who coached the Gators from 2011-14, is in his first season at South Carolina and has the Gamecocks riding a three-game winning streak.
He has consistently said this game is not about him, but it will be interesting to see how the fans respond to his return, and how his South Carolina players perform for him while trying to make a statement for their coach.
Florida may have even more to prove Saturday, though.
The Gators’ season faces a pivotal moment as veteran backup Austin Appleby again takes the reins of a struggling offense and a pair of young linebackers step into key roles on the defense.
Here’s a thorough look at the matchup as the Gators prepare for the Gamecocks:
|Team||Scoring||Total Offense||Total Defense||Scoring Defense|
Florida: Fans were so eager to push Appleby back to the sideline after his two-game stint filling in for Del Rio at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, but things haven’t gotten any better offensively since then. Florida leaned on its defense to win at Georgia and then scored just 3 offensive points at Arkansas while mustering only 241 yards. The graduate transfer from Purdue gets another opportunity to run the offense.
While many fans are pining for true freshman Feleipe Franks to get a shot, coach Jim McElwain wants some veteran stability at the position with the Gators still playing for the SEC East title. Appleby delivered a tremendous first half against Tennessee before the offense stagnated in his next six quarters as the starter, but overall he’s completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 470 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. If he falters, Franks will get a chance, but Appleby deserves a shot here.
South Carolina: True freshman Jake Bentley has been a revelation for the Gamecocks, winning all three of his collegiate starts so far while completing 73 percent of his passes for 622 yards, 6 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. With him protecting the football so well and the defense playing stout, South Carolina has found a formula for success after a slow start to the season.
In the Gamecocks’ 24-21 upset win over Tennessee, Bentley completed 15-of-20 passes for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns. He then had his way with a porous Missouri defense last week, completing 22-of-28 passes for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns. South Carolina has no doubt found its quarterback of the future and present, but Bentley hasn’t faced a secondary like Florida’s yet.
Florida: The Gators no doubt will try to get their ground game going again Saturday to hopefully take some pressure off Appleby, but that’s no guarantee. Florida finished with just 12 net rushing yards last week at Arkansas. Over the last two games, the team is averaging a dismal 1.8 yards per carry and is now dealing with a reshuffled offensive line in the wake of Dillard’s knee injury.
Jordan Scarlett leads the Gators with 483 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns, but look for the coaches to continue to spread out carries to Lamical Perine (336 yards, 1 TD) and Mark Thompson (281-2) as well.
South Carolina: Along with Bentley, the Gamecocks have found another emerging standout in freshman running back Rico Dowdle, who has made an immediate impression since debuting midseason. He’s only getting better with each game, too.
After rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound rookie went for 149 yards and a score last week against Missouri. He’s up to 440 yards and 6 TDs in just five games. The Gamecocks also have A.J. Turner (336 yards, 2 TDs), although he will be a game-time decision after getting banged up last weekend.
Edge: South Carolina
Wide receivers/tight ends
Florida: One of the underlying story lines regarding the Gators’ slumping offense is the recent inability to get top playmaker Antonio Callaway involved. After racking up 17 catches for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns through his first three games, the sophomore has just 14 catches for 150 yards and no receiving touchdowns over his last four. He also needs some help from the Gators’ other receivers to divert some defensive attention away from him. Freshman Tyrie Cleveland has shown some flashes. He was hobbled by an ankle injury last weekend, but he should be good to go Saturday.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ top seven wideouts are freshmen and sophomores. Deebo Samuel leads the group with 33 catches for 470 yards and Bryan Edwards has 31 grabs for 388 yards and 2 scores. The team’s leading receiver, though, is 6-foot-5 tight end Hayden Hurst, who has 35 catches for 426 yards while fellow tight end K.C. Crosby leads the team with 4 receiving touchdowns.
Florida: Dillard’s value to the Florida offensive line was underrated. He was pretty steady from the center position while also coordinating the communication throughout the line. With him sidelined, right guard Tyler Jordan will shift over a spot. He has initially recruited as a center and has worked there in practice throughout his time in the program, so the position is not foreign to him. But it’s still an adjustment.
Fred Johnson, who opened the season as a starter, will step in to take most of the snaps at right guard. Whoever is in there, though, the unit has to play far better than it did a week ago when it got physically overpowered by Arkansas.
South Carolina: Protection has been spotty up front for the Gamecocks, who have given up 28 sacks already to rank tied for 115th nationally. The right side is especially inexperienced as guard Donell Stanley and tackle D.J. Park have just four combined career starts. The team’s depth chart this week also lists Cory Helms, who has started at right guard most of the season, as the top center over Alan Knott.
Florida: The loss of Jefferson at defensive end is notable as he has had a nice season, especially since moving back outside. The Gators have enough playmakers up front to fill in, though. Freshman end Jabari Zuniga leads the team with 5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 7 quarterback hurries, while veteran defensive tackle Caleb Brantley has been a physical force.
Fellow DT Taven Bryan also graded out well in that loss at Arkansas as the team’s top run stopper. DEs Jordan Sherit (knee), Bryan Cox Jr. (broken hand) and NT Joey Ivie (thumb) will continue to play through whatever pain or discomfort remains.
South Carolina: Defensive end Darius English has been the most disruptive force up front for South Carolina, tallying 7.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 quarterback hurries and 2 forced fumbles. Overall, though, the Gamecocks rank 79th nationally with 2 sacks per game and are giving up an average of 4.8 yards per rush.
Florida: It is yet to be seen just how damaging the absence of top tacklers Davis and Anzalone will be for this defense. There was a palpable intangible value that Davis brought to the unit beyond his impressive stats. True freshman David Reese will take his spot and coordinate the defensive calls.
Reese has been impressive when on the field, racking up 6 tackles in both the Missouri and Arkansas games after taking over following injuries to Davis. Redshirt-freshman Kylan Johnson, senior Daniel McMillian and true freshman Vosean Joseph also will play bigger roles.
South Carolina: Bryson Allen-Williams has racked up 8 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 52 total tackles as the Gamecocks’ weakside linebacker while middle linebacker Jonathan Walton (39 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble) and strongside linebacker T.J. Holloman (53 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble) have been steady as well.
Edge: South Carolina
Florida: While star cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson have shared most of the spotlight within the Gators secondary, McElwain had commented that the strength of the unit goes well beyond its most high-profile standouts. And sure enough, no Florida defensive back has looked more impressive the last two games than nickelback Duke Dawson, who returned an interception for touchdown at Arkansas. Tabor and Wilson, meanwhile, have combined for 7 INTs and 2 pick-6s this fall, while veteran safety Marcus Maye has been a steady contributor each week. This remains an elite unit.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are giving up just 194.2 passing yards per game, which ranks 22nd nationally. Safety D.J. Smith leads the team with 53 tackles and has 3 tackles for loss and an interception. Cornerback Chris Lammons is having a nice season with 3 interceptions, 4 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries and 3 pass breakups. On the other side, though, Rashad Fenton has made just three starts. And veteran safety Chaz Elder has been limited much of the season by injury.
Florida: Punter Johnny Townsend was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award this week. And deservedly so. He’s averaging 47.1 yards per punt to rank fifth nationally, including 19 punts inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Eddy Pineiro is 11-of-15 on field goals this fall. Callaway has had a rough seasons returning punts between fumbles and mental miscues, but he remains a big-play threat in that role. Meanwhile, newly minted kick returner Chris Thompson is somewhere between questionable and probable while trying to return from a concussion.
South Carolina: Elliott Fry is 9-of-13 on field goals, but he’s just 4-of-8 on kicks from 40 yards and beyond. Sean Kelly averages 41.9 yards per punt, including 24 inside the 20-yard line. Turner averages a solid 25.5 yards per kickoff return while the Gamecocks have not gotten much out of their punt return unit. They’ve also allowed 2 kick return touchdowns.
We were very wrong in this spot last week — very, very wrong — in thinking that Florida would be the better team against Arkansas and be able to exploit the Razorbacks’ vulnerable defense.
Well, the Gators should have a clear advantage over South Carolina just given where the programs are in their respective development, with the Gamecocks rebuilding under a new coach and rookie quarterback and Florida vying for a second straight SEC East title, but now is not the time for assumptions regarding this team.
The Gators have to prove something this week. Injuries aside, their defense should be good enough to rattle Bentley and limit his effectiveness. The question, as it is each week for this team, is whether or not Florida can score enough points.
If Appleby falters, McElwain has said he won’t hesitate to turn to Franks. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Regardless, though, this matchup with the Gamecocks is suddenly a lot more interesting than it looked to be a few weeks ago.
The Gators need to win — and should win — but it’s far from a given.