It was only two years ago the Florida Gators fell short of bowl eligibility for the first time in more than two decades, and last year they narrowly qualified for a return to the postseason as former coach Will Muschamp headed out the door.

This year, Jim McElwain takes over perhaps the most talented-depleted Florida team in recent history, but like every coach before him he’ll be expected to produce immediate results in the form of success in the SEC and during bowl season. The two really go hand-in-hand in that two-thirds of Florida’s schedule is played in the SEC, meaning a lack of success in conference play will almost certainly keep it out of a bowl game.

The Gators play three games this year against New Mexico State, East Carolina and Florida Atlantic, and even though it was only two years ago that Florida fell to Georgia Southern, those three games should all be Gators victories. If UF takes care of business, it’ll be halfway to the six-win mark on those wins alone.

However, the Gators other nine games are comprised of eight SEC contests and an end-of-year, in-state showdown with longtime rival Florida State. Those nine games will not constitute certain victories for the Gators, and even though they’d only need to go 3-6 in those games to finish with a .500 record, that task is easier said than done.

For the sake of projection (it is the offseason, what else do you have going on football-wise?) let’s say Florida takes care of a Vandy team even more talent-depleted than UF is, and let’s say it beats Kentucky for the 29th year in a row. We’ll count those as two of the necessary three wins, even though Vandy finally has consistency at quarterback and a revamped Derek Mason defense, and even though UK will be out to avenge a triple-overtime loss a year ago with near-even talent to Florida’s.

But, again, for the sake of projection, let’s say Florida takes care of business in those games the way it has nearly every year since the Reagan administration. Then, the Gators would only need one win in their other seven games to reach the postseason and begin the McElwain era on the right foot.

Those seven opponents are as follows:

  • Tennessee (9/26)
  • Ole Miss (10/3)
  • AT Missouri (10/10)
  • AT LSU (10/17)
  • AT Georgia (10/31 — neutral site)
  • AT South Carolina (11/14)
  • Florida State (11/28)

The word you’ll notice standing out from the list above is the word “AT.” The Gators will have to travel to play two-time defending East division champion Missouri; they’ll have to travel to take on LSU in Death Valley (likely at night) and will have to face Georgia on a neutral site as they do every year. None of those three games will be easy, nor will games against Florida State (the new semi-dynastic power of the Sunshine State), Ole Miss (which has as many as four first-round picks in next year’s draft currently on the roster), or Tennessee (one of the favorites in the East).

Who does that leave? South Carolina. And who coaches South Carolina? Former Florida head coach Steve Spurrier, of course. The Gamecocks stole a game in the Swamp last year thanks to some heroic plays on special teams down the stretch, and the Gators attempt to avenge that loss could also constitute their best shot at a sixth win this fall.

The Gamecocks are in somewhat the same boat as Florida, but they took a completely different route to get there. Spurrier gradually built the Gamecocks into a national power and led them to three straight 11-win season from 2011-13. But not once did South Carolina appear in the SEC championship game, and not once did it play in a BCS bowl game.

After peaking during that three-year stretch, the Gamecocks have begun to slowly but surely lose more talent in departing players then they gain each year in recruiting. The team’s record has slowly begun falling back down to earth, and questions surrounding Spurrier’s age and potential retirement have caused major issues on the recruiting trail.

Five years ago, it was Florida and South Carolina who were more or less running the East. Obviously that’s not the case anymore.

But because the two teams find themselves in such similar positions, needing a win over one another to even have a chance at six wins in 2015, the game between two truly mediocre teams will carry some real significance.

Circling back to Florida, the Gators must defeat their former legendary coach to keep McElwain’s momentum since arriving in Gainesville going. The Gamecocks are the perfect combination of respected program and struggling team, and their coach is the perfect combination of a legitimate threat and a lovable football figure may have lost a bit of his fastball.

The win is both realistic and respectable all at once. It’s really the only game on Florida’s schedule that it has a bonafide chance to win and that people would also say is a legitimate victory. A win over New Mexico State would not inspire the same reaction.

That’s why this game is so crucial. If Florida finishes 5-7 with wins over three non-conference cupcakes, UK and Vandy, no one would be impressed. Beyond the obvious disappointment of missing a bowl game for the second time in three years, the Gators will also have closed the season with an 0-7 record in the seven games their fans care about most. They’ll have failed the truest tests placed in front of them, which is not going to command respect from the media or the national college football experts.

A win over South Carolina might. it would at least command enough respect to get McElwain through his first year with a bowl berth and a positive spin to sell to future recruits. Florida has the history, the tradition, the popular coach, the passionate fans, the money, the SEC affiliation, the established path to the NFL and, of course, the sunny weather. Any way to show recruits better times are ahead can result in a fantastic recruiting class next winter. That could be the foundation for the rebuilt McElwain is charged with leading.

A loss to South Carolina would more or less make this season a wash. This isn’t to say a loss to the Gamecocks in 2015 would still haunt the Gators in 2020, but tangentially this game could affect the state of both programs for the next few seasons.

That the game is against Florida’s former coach and before that it’s former Heisman-winning quarterback is merely a cherry on top of this sundae. It’s a convenient storyline that in no way encompasses the importance of the game.

Circle your calendars, folks. November 14, Columbia, S.C., a pivotal game will be played. It may not get even so much as a mention on College GameDay, but the Gators will know what it means.

The fate of Florida’s 2015 season, and perhaps the fate of the first chapter of the McElwain era, rests on that game. The Gators better come prepared.