GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s performance last week at Missouri has created many questions about the Gators’ focus and their investment in the rest of the season.
Sophomore linebacker David Reese publicly challenged his teammates after that 45-16 loss and interim coach Randy Shannon fully endorsed those comments.
Everybody can agree that the beatdown in Missouri was about more than game plans and execution, but the question nobody can answer is: How will the Gators respond to it?
They are playing for a coaching staff that, mostly, won’t be here in a month or so. They are so far off their goals of competing for an SEC title that the only real attainable stakes left are slipping into a bowl game and avoiding a losing season.
How Florida responds mentally this week is more important than anything related to Xs and Os.
Here are the keys for the Gators to get on track at South Carolina.
1. Play with purpose
To reiterate, if Florida looks like it did last week then nothing else on this list matters.
While the Gators are afterthoughts in the SEC, these games aren’t meaningless. For the players hoping to move on to the NFL, everything they put on film matters. For the guys returning, the new coach is going to do a thorough evaluation of his new roster.
There’s always something to play for, even now.
Talent-wise, Florida can beat all three of the remaining teams on its schedule.
The Gamecocks are 6-3 and look to be trending upward under second-year coach Will Muschamp, but they actually rank worse than the Gators in total offense (113th) and total defense (60th).
If Florida comes to play, there’s no question it can win this game. But that “if” remains the key.
2. Unleash Malik Zaire
Maligned offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn’t maximize quarterback Malik Zaire’s dual-threat abilities well at Missouri.
There seemed to be few calls leveraging Zaire’s rushing ability, and little variation in the same game plan the offense has had all season.
Sticking with Zaire at quarterback is the right move. He showed encouraging signs at Missouri, hitting on some downfield passes and utilizing the middle of the field.
But there’s more Florida can do with his skill set.
3. Set the tone up front
The injury toll has been significant for Florida with another key player seemingly dropping every week.
Last week it was left guard Brett Heggie, who might have been having the best season of any Florida offensive lineman. He’s now down for the season with a knee injury.
Florida will lean on experienced junior Tyler Jordan to fill the void, and the Gators can’t let the loss of Heggie become an excuse.
They need to set the tone up front if this team is going to have a resurgent performance.
4. Stuff the run
Florida’s young defense peaked in back-to-back losses to LSU and Texas A&M, holding both opponents to less than 20 points.
More specifically, the Gators shut down the Tigers’ and Aggies’ running backs. LSU found success with wide receiver jet sweeps and Texas A&M got moving in the second half with its mobile quarterback, but the running backs were silenced in those games.
The last two games have been a different story as Georgia rushed for 292 yards and Missouri rumbled for 227.
If the Gators give South Carolina the same open rushing lanes, it will be another long day for the defense.
The Gamecocks are capable on the ground with Ty’Son Williams (349 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) and A.J. Turner (302, 5.3). In recent wins, they rushed for 159 yards against Arkansas, 194 against Tennessee and 212 against Vanderbilt.
Georgia stuffed South Carolina last week, though, allowing only 43 rushing yards on 17 carries.
Florida doesn’t have nearly the defense of Georgia, but if it comes to play it surely can do better than those other teams.
5. Barrage Jake Bentley
South Carolina sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley is one of the better young QBs in the SEC. He’s passed for 1,986 yards, 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions this fall.
Florida’s strength for much of the season was its defensive line being disruptive in opponents’ backfields. Then the Gators came out flat against Missouri, failing to register a single tackle for loss or quarterback hurry.
If they give Bentley time to throw, he will take advantage.
Yes, Florida’s defensive end depth has been depleted with Jordan Sherit and Jachai Polite out with injuries and Jabari Zuniga not looking at full strength due to an ankle injury.
But the Gators need to do better up front defensively than they did a week ago, plain and simple.