COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Jake Bentley Show is ready to take its act on the road for the first time this season.
Over the last three games, South Carolina, led by its star freshman quarterback, has shown that the future is now. But the biggest test is waiting in The Swamp.
Coach Will Muschamp leads the Gamecocks (5-4, 3-4 SEC) into Gainesville for his first game back at Florida since he was fired as head coach.
The Gators (6-2, 4-2 SEC) are headed by second-year man Jim McElwain, an offensive-minded coach whose team is clinging for dear life to the top spot in the SEC East. South Carolina is among the handful of teams jockeying for a spot in the SEC title game.
The storylines and implications surrounding Saturday’s noon showdown at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium are in abundance.
When South Carolina is on offense…
Florida is among the SEC’s elite units and ranks first in pass defense efficiency (90.5), second in scoring defense (14.1) and fourth against the run (120.2 yards/game).
Another stat that looks like trouble for the Gamecocks and their freshman quarterback is the sack total of 22, which is third in the conference. Five of those sacks were made by linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, both of whom have been ruled out by coach Jim McElwain.
Florida’s sack leader, defensive end Jabari Zuniga, has 5 this season, but 4 were against UMass and North Texas. Eleven of the Gators 22 sacks were against the Minutemen and Mean Green.
Of the 11 sacks that were recorded in SEC play, 5 were against Kentucky, the same game Wildcats starting quarterback Drew Barker was lost to a back injury.
But South Carolina has had trouble avoiding sacks all season, particularly with Bentley at quarterback. The freshman has been sacked 12 times in three games, which accounts for nearly half of the Gamecocks team total of 28. That’s six more than any other conference team has allowed.
The Gators secondary is where the Gamecocks offense will face its stiffest challenge. According to Muschamp, safety Marcus Maye might be the best player on the entire defense. Cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor form one of the top tandems in the country, not just the SEC.
Though Bentley has yet to throw an interception, Florida is tied for second in the conference with 11 — Wilson and Tabor have combined for 7. Their man-to-man matchups with South Carolina wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel will help determine the game’s outcome.
Key matchup: South Carolina’s wide receivers vs. Florida’s cornerbacks
Key Gamecock: Deebo Samuel
Overall advantage: Florida
When South Carolina is on defense…
South Carolina’s pass defense will present a stiff challenge for a Florida attack that’s among the weakest in the conference. Overall, the Gamecocks are first in the SEC with 12 interceptions and third in pass defense efficiency (108.7).
With the loss of starting quarterback Luke Del Rio, who’s out after suffering a shoulder injury against Arkansas, Florida is missing a 56 percent passer with as many touchdown throws as interceptions (8).
Purdue transfer Austin Appleby, Saturday’s starter, has completed 61 percent of his passes for 470 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. Appleby’s pass efficiency rating (126.92) is also greater than Del Rio’s mark of 118.64.
As a team, the Gators 120.8 rating is 12th in the SEC.
McElwain hasn’t ruled out the possibility of playing one of the true freshmen, Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, neither of whom have yet to play this season. Franks was the No. 5 ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2016. Trask was 92nd.
With 31 catches, Antonio Callaway is the only Gators wide receiver has more than 30. His 485 receiving yards are also first on the team. Over his last four games, however, Callaway has averaged 3.5 catches for 37.5 yards.
Though his production is down, South Carolina cornerbacks JaMarcus King and Chris Lammons are faced with a tough matchup in Callaway. No. 2 wide receiver Brandon Powell is also a talented playmaker.
Plus, Florida has given up just 12 sacks this season, so coverage sacks could be tough to come by. Only Missouri is better among SEC teams (9) and South Carolina sacked Tigers quarterback Drew Lock once last week.
Florida’s ground game has enjoyed some success with Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine. The duo combined to rush for over 800 yards this season, and Perine is one of 11 freshmen to post two 100-yard games against FBS opponents.
However, the Gators run offense is 12th in the SEC, averaging 150.4 yards per contest. But South Carolina has proven to be susceptible against the run, giving up 197.4 yards a game, which is ninth in the league.
Key matchup: Florida passing game vs. South Carolina secondary
Key Gamecock: Chris Lammons
Overall advantage: South Carolina