GAINESVILLE — After back-to-back embarrassing defeats extended Florida’s losing streak to four games, it’s safe to suggest a once-promising season has spiraled out of control in Gainesville. Whatever could go wrong seemingly has gone wrong, and it may get worse before it gets better this week when Florida visits South Carolina (noon, CBS).
The Gamecocks are vastly improved under second-year head coach Will Muschamp, who has the program he now runs headed in the right direction while the Gators program he once ran continues a free fall.
In many ways, Muschamp’s Gamecocks are ahead of schedule. South Carolina is 6-3, already bowl eligible and threatening to win more than 7 games in a season for the first time since Steve Spurrier’s 2013 team went 11-2. While the Gamecocks are also coming off a loss, they were competitive on the road at No. 1 Georgia and enter Saturday’s game against the reeling Gators favored by 8 points.
Muschamp’s renaissance at South Carolina must be bittersweet for Gators fans, who gravitated toward the amicable, fiery Muschamp only to see him fail under the weight of miserable offenses and recruiting imbalances. And the misery of their own program only complicates matters. Florida is still paying Will Muschamp his buyout, with a $787,000 payment due this month. That’s a ton of money to pay an opposing coach to potentially take your program to the woodshed.
Can the Gators prevent a fifth consecutive loss? Can Muschamp close SEC play at 5-3 and build momentum for the Gamecocks’ season-finale against hated Clemson?
Here are 5 bold predictions for Saturday’s contest:
Florida will run more than one designed quarterback run, and Malik Zaire will have some success running the ball.
Going out on a limb here, aren’t we?
Actually, because of Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, kind of.
In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Zaire ran the football for 290 yards and two touchdowns, including, of course, a memorable 22-carry, 96-yard performance in a Music City Bowl upset of LSU.
In theory, the decision to start Zaire was rooted in his ability to make plays with his legs. Zaire’s ability to run the football gives Florida’s power running game the extra wrinkle it needs to keep defenses off-balance with run-pass option packages.
No one told Doug Nussmeier, apparently.
Against Missouri, Florida tried only one designed quarterback run. It gained 5 yards and had a face mask tacked on, meaning Florida tallied 20 yards the one time they went to Zaire in the running game. Florida finished the drive with a field goal, and if only fleeting, the offense had momentum.
Somehow, they never went back to a designed Zaire run, or a run-pass option.
The Missouri game wasn’t an aberration either.
In the three games Zaire has played as a Gator, he’s only registered 16 carries, and six of those have come on sacks. Put simply, Florida hasn’t played to Zaire’s strengths.
Still, South Carolina has struggled with mobile quarterbacks against both Kentucky, where Stephen Johnson gained 74 yards on 7 carries, and Texas A&M, where Kellen Mond’s mobility helped seal the win late for the Aggies.
Here’s betting Florida’s coaching staff gives Zaire a bit more freedom Saturday in Columbia.
Skai Moore will snag an interception for the Gamecocks.
Gamecocks senior linebacker Skai Moore is having an All-SEC type season. With 67 tackles, a career-high 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, a healthy Moore is a big reason why a defense that allowed over 200 yards a game on the ground a season ago has improved over 50 yards (149.2 yards allowed) in 2017.
Moore also has two interceptions, giving the linebacker 13 for his career. That’s only one shy of South Carolina legend Bo Davies’ school record of 14. Moore is a ball hawk who runs downhill to the ball in the run game and can cover in Muschamp’s third-down packages.
Throw in the fact that Zaire tossed a pick a week ago, and Will Muschamp has a made a career of dominating predictable offenses, and the thinking here is Moore gets an interception and makes a little history Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Florida will score a first-quarter touchdown.
Another prediction where we’re going out on a limb.
Florida ranks 126th in FBS in first-quarter scoring, averaging a miserable 2 points per first quarter.
How bad has Florida been in the first quarter?
The Gators opened their first two games, against Michigan and Tennessee, with extended field goal drives. Since, they’ve managed only 10 first-quarter points — a touchdown drive led by Luke Del Rio against Vanderbilt, and a running-game powered field goal drive led by Feleipe Franks against Texas A&M.
“Obviously, we have to play better and start faster, play with more juice from the go,” Randy Shannon said this week.
Here’s thinking that against South Carolina, with Tyrie Cleveland finally 100 percent, Florida will.
Hayden Hurst will score a touchdown for the Gamecocks.
One of the key leaders in Will Muschamp’s quick turnaround at South Carolina has been the terrific play of former walk-on tight end Hayden Hurst. The junior from Jacksonville is a nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the most outstanding college football player who began his career as a walk-on. Hurst has 30 receptions for 421 yards and figures to be a big part of Kurt Roper’s plan to attack a thin Florida linebacker corps.
The Gators’ linebackers have played poorly most of the season, and the best two of the lot, former walk-on Cristian Garcia and middle linebacker David Reese, struggle in pass coverage. That’s a bad formula for containing Hurst. He’ll punch one in for the Gamecocks.
Florida’s defense gives the Gators a chance to win.
The Gamecocks have really struggled to run the ball, ranking 114th in rushing offense. Florida’s struggled against the run of late, but Saturday is still a favorable matchup for Florida up front.
That puts the impetus on Jake Bentley to make plays with his arm, and while the sophomore has taken care of the ball and been accurate (61.2% completion rate), this hasn’t necessarily translated to solid production on offense. The Gamecocks have missed big plays down field too often and rank 95th in explosive plays and 92nd in scoring offense. Florida’s young corners struggled a bit against Mizzou — but who hasn’t this season?
Expect Florida’s defense to play a much better game Saturday and give the Gators a chance to win late.