Florida football: 3 matchups that will define Florida-South Carolina
Florida’s home opener this week sees the No. 3 Gators take on South Carolina (12 p.m., ESPN).
While the Gators were terrific offensively in their 51-35 win at Ole Miss last week, the usually stout Florida defense was exposed to the tune of 600 yards and 5 touchdowns by an Ole Miss offense playing its first game in a brand new system. The Gators struggled in all facets of defense last Saturday: They tackled poorly, blew coverages, failed to hold the edge in contain defense and didn’t consistently pressure the quarterback. Sophomore corner Kaiir Elam, a preseason All-SEC selection, summed it up well when he told the media that the victory felt like a loss to the Florida defense.
“We didn’t play up to par,” Elam said. “Looking back on the field, I’m not gonna lie. I was pretty pissed off. This is our job. This is DBU,” Elam said. “This is our job to lock down opposing offenses. It’s something we have to learn from, but that never should happen.”
Florida didn’t play anything like a program that wants to claim the mantle of “DBU” last week, and they’ll be out to prove a point in their Swamp debut Saturday.
Standing in their way will be a South Carolina team that dropped a heartbreaker at home to Tennessee last Saturday night. While the outcome deeply disappointed Gamecocks fans, the Gamecocks also showed some promise. The passing game looked much improved under new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and graduate transfer quarterback Collin Hill. Wide receiver Shi Smith looked like a gamebreaker, hauling in 10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. On defense, Will Muschamp’s unit surrendered 24 points, but the Gamecocks played were terrific on 3rd-down defense (1-for-11), played quite well for 3 quarters (1st, 2nd, 4th) and, led by a monster game from Kingsley Enagbare, appeared capable at getting to the passer. All of the above will be useful in a challenging environment Saturday afternoon.
Florida has defeated South Carolina twice in the Mullen era, but both games have been highly competitive, and there’s little reason to think Saturday’s contest at The Swamp will be any different.
Here are 3 matchups that will define Florida and South Carolina.
1. Shi Smith and Xavier Legette vs. the Florida secondary
The Carolina duo of Shi Smith and Xavier Legette combined for 14 catches on 20 targets against Tennessee for a hearty 202 yards and a touchdown.
Having just been incinerated by Ole Miss receivers Elijah Moore and Dontario Drummond to the tune of 12 catches on 15 targets for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns, a matchup between two talented receivers and Florida’s secondary appears to be “Advantage, Gamecocks.”
Smith has quietly been an underrated player his whole career, exhibiting good breakaway speed and playmaking ability. Here he is getting separation on a wheel concept to seal a victory over Michigan in the 2018 Outback Bowl.
Only 53 days until SEC football returns!
2018 was a rough year for Michigan when facing SEC opponents. Shi Smith and Lamical Perine both put these games away with their 53-yard touchdowns. #SECcountdown #SpursUp #GoGators pic.twitter.com/B4U8pavuwA
— that SEC podcast (@thatSECpodcast) July 2, 2019
Here he is attacking the ball through a double team and showing his elite hands against Alabama in 2019.
Double coverage? Doesn't matter.
Ryan Hilinski with a DIME to Shi Smith for the touchdown. pic.twitter.com/xvko3Nx0vp
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 14, 2019
Finally, here he is with a beautifully executed slant route, exhibiting both his route-running ability and ability to make plays after the catch last week.
— Gamecock Athletics (@GamecocksOnline) September 28, 2020
Florida will likely need safety help consistently on Smith, which should open things up for Legette. Recruited as an athlete, the former high school quarterback is raw, but he showed explosiveness on a 42-yard catch and run against the Vols and is a tough kid who can make plays through contact. Mike Bobo raved about the camp he had, and Florida needs to be aware of where he is at all times.
Will Muschamp was disappointed in his receivers not named Smith and Legette last weekend.
“Our other guys have to do a better job,” Muschamp told the media this week.“You have to win in man-to-man coverage in this league. If you can’t create separation, it’s hard to throw it to you.”
That’s worrisome, but tight end Nick Muse caught 4 passes against Tennessee and Bobo has always used tight ends well. Muse presents a third option that will challenge a group of Florida safeties that simply must play better if the Gators are to compete for championships this season.
2. Florida’s front 7 against South Carolina’s o-line
The Gamecocks really struggled to establish the run against Tennessee. That’s a concern for most offenses but especially for a Bobo offense, which wants to run first to set up play-action and the vertical passing game.
Muschamp blamed the offensive line’s issues on unfavorable down-and-distance situations, but that’s only a half measure explanation because part of the reason South Carolina had poor down and distance situations is they couldn’t get leverage up front to run the ball on 1st down. The Gamecocks gained only 89 yards on the ground, failing to hit 100 for the 4th consecutive game dating to last season and averaging just 2.5 yards per carry on 35 carries.
Should that make Florida confident?
Hard to say.
Linebacker Ventrell Miller was a monster against Ole Miss, collecting 15 tackles, including 2 for loss, as well as a sack. But Florida struggled to set the edge at times, especially when their ends and buck linebackers found themselves too far up field.
That allowed Matt Corral to break containment and scramble effectively and it allowed Jerrion Ealy to have success in the delayed run game, where he collected 37 yards on 5 attempts. For the game, Ealy rushed for 79 yards on 16 carries, a very efficient, productive type of afternoon.
At Gator County, David Wunderlich did an outstanding job of breaking down Florida’s defensive issues against Ole Miss and just how much the loss of edge-setting Jon Greenard hurt in that respect. Florida will need to be disciplined to keep Collin Hill, a willing albeit not terrific runner, in the pocket this weekend and to prevent Bobo from hurting the Gators with draws and counters that exploit overaggressive angles and overpursuit.
Florida certainly is capable at getting to the quarterback, and Brenton Cox looked the part of a 5-star force Saturday. But the Gators need more from Zachary Carter, Khris Bogle and the rest of their defensive front. A potential return from Kyree Campbell, Florida’s most seasoned tackle, could help offset Carolina’s desire to pound the interior of the line as well.
3. Florida’s Jacob Copeland and Trevon Grimes vs. South Carolina’s Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn
First things first. Florida’s Kyles are going to do their thing.
The Gamecocks have a terrific defensive leader in linebacker Ernest Jones, and he’ll do his best to be Muschamp’s coach on the field and let his teammates know where Kyle Pitts is at all times. But the Gators’ All-American tight end is going to make some plays, and Muschamp seemed to concede as much this week in media availability.
The key is what happens elsewhere. Last weekend at Ole Miss, 11 Gators caught footballs, which meant Florida had more than enough production at other spots.
South Carolina will be a bolder challenge. In corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukaumu, the Gamecocks have one of the best cornerback tandems in the SEC. Mukuamu is a ballhawk most remember for his 3 interception performance in South Carolina’s win over Georgia last season. Horn was the 2nd-least thrown at corner in SEC play a season ago, per Stats Solutions, behind only Florida’s CJ Henderson. Teams tend to stay away from him.
The presence of Pitts means that Florida will have plenty of chances to win 1-on-1 battles against these terrific corners on the boundary. Jacob Copeland had an up and down debut, and Florida needs more from the big, fast blue-chipper. Can he play a better game against a better set of corners? We will see.
As for Grimes, he looked the part of an NFL wide receiver Saturday. If SDS had to guess, Jaycee Horn will be assigned to Grimes, a matchup that will garner plenty of attention among NFL scouts.
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) September 26, 2020
Grimes showed Saturday he can win 1-on-1 battles in tight coverage and space. He’ll need to do that again Saturday, and he knows it, as he told the media Tuesday that Carolina’s length and physicality at corner stood out on film. A leader on the field and off it, Grimes is a student of the game that embraces these types of challenges. Expect him to excel Saturday, and for that to make an immense difference.