Position edge: Florida vs. South Carolina
Will Muschamp returns to The Swamp on Saturday, and he’s looking to play spoiler.
The former Florida coach could effectively end the Gators’ hopes of winning the SEC East if his squad pulls off an upset in Gainesville. UF is favored by 11.5 points, but that’s down from a line that opened at 15 points before Jim McElwain announced that key starters Luke Del Rio, Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone were all out.
The Gamecocks come in hot, with recent SEC wins over Tennessee and Missouri. If they make it four in a row, there will officially be chaos in the SEC East.
Here’s who has the edge on a matchup basis:
When Florida has the ball
QB Austin Appleby vs. pass defense: With Del Rio out due to a shoulder injury, it appears backup QB Austin Appleby will get the start against South Carolina. Jim McElwain said he’s considering playing one of the freshmen, Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask, but that Appleby would start the week with first-team reps. At practice Tuesday, Appleby led the starters and Franks led the second team.
In four games this season, including two starts, Appleby is 44-of-72 for 470 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception. The bulk of that production comes from the Tennessee game (23-of-39, 296 yards, 3 TD, INT). While the Gators got off to a hot start in the first half, the offense limped through the second half against UT and the Vanderbilt game, and Del Rio took the starting job back upon returning from a knee injury.
Whether it’s Appleby or Franks, the Florida quarterback will be facing a South Carolina defense that has shut down SEC passing attacks. In conference games only, the Gamecocks are giving up a conference low of 157.3 passing yards per game.
EDGE: South Carolina
UF running backs vs. run defense: Florida’s running game is coming off its worst two weeks of the season, gaining only 112 yards on 62 carries against Georgia and Arkansas. Last week, the Gators couldn’t get the ground game going, and abandoned it early, running only 14 times for 12 yards, a head-scratching number considering the Razorbacks gave up 543 rushing yards the previous time out against Auburn.
The good news for the Gators is that they have been able to run on SEC defenses at home. Against Kentucky and Missouri, Florida’s running back committee – Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, Jordan Cronkrite and Mark Thompson – ran the ball 89 times for 531 yards. In conference competition, South Carolina’s rushing defense ranks No. 9 allowing 216.6 yards per game, just behind Kentucky at No. 8 (186 yards).
Florida’s running game, led by Scarlett and Perine, should benefit from being back at home, but it might not be as much as expected with questions in the passing game.
WR Antonio Callaway vs. CBs Chris Lammons and Jamarcus King: The Gamecocks’ top corners are getting to learn from a secondary expert in Muschamp. King is No. 3 in the SEC with 11 passes defended (3 INT, 8 pass breakups) while Lammons is No. 24 with 6 passes defended.
If either corner covers Callaway, they’ll likely get some help from a safety. As Callaway himself noted, he’s dealt with double coverages almost all season.
“I haven’t really got a one-on-one all year,” Callaway said after practice Tuesday.
Even when dealing with double coverages, Callaway has been the team’s top wideout with 31 catches for 485 and 2 touchdowns. Callaway has been hurt by the lack of complementary wideout, though talented freshman Tyrie Cleveland had recently earned a starting spot, but was injured at Arkansas.
Callaway’s biggest game of the year came at Tennessee (4 catches, 134 yards) when Appleby was the starter. Appleby’s stronger arm gives Callaway a better chance to get open for a big play with the deep ball.
When South Carolina has the ball
QB Jake Bentley vs. pass defense: The Gamecocks burned the freshman Bentley’s redshirt on Oct. 22, and he led the team to a 34-28 victory over UMass. He secured the job for the rest of the season with a 24-21 upset of Tennessee.
In three starts, Bentley is 54-of-74 for 622 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s put up those numbers in three home contests. He hasn’t faced a pass defense as good as Florida’s (162.7 yards per game allowed) or an environment as tough as The Swamp (even with a noon kickoff).
South Carolina’s pass protection has been the worst in the conference in SEC contests, allowing 26 sacks in seven games. Florida has recorded 11 sacks in six conference games, No. 8 in the SEC. Expect the Gators to pressure Bentley and force him to make some poor throws at UF’s talented secondary.
RB Rico Dowdle vs. run defense: Dowdle has come on strong lately, recording 54 combined carries against Tennessee and Missouri for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns. He faces a Gators run defense that has been up-and-down and will be missing its two best linebackers, Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone.
Two weeks ago, Florida was boasting an elite rushing defense, having held Georgia to 21 yards on 19 carries. Last week, Arkansas went ground and pound on them, logging 49 rushes for 223 yards.
Dowdle’s hot, the Gators just got gashed and are missing two key run-stoppers – this feels like a South Carolina advantage.
EDGE: South Carolina
South Carolina receivers vs. Florida secondary: Top Gamecocks wideout Deebo Samuel posts numbers similar to Callaway (33 catches, 470 yards) and is ranked No. 14 in the SEC in receiving yards. Not too far behind are TE Hayden Hurst (35 catches, 426 yards) and WR Bryan Edwards (31 catches, 388 yards).
Samuel and Edwards will have it tough going up against future NFL cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, who have anchored that passing defense ranked No. 2 in conference play. Last time Tabor and Wilson played in The Swamp, they each recorded a pick-six to give the Gators a 14-point boost in a 40-14 victory over Missouri.
Hurst could prevent matchup problems with Davis and Anzalone out, but overall Florida’s secondary should turn in another top-notch performance with the help of the home crowd.
The Gamecocks have been dogged by special teams throughout the year. Will Muschamp has said the problem in defending the return game or getting something going can be attributed to a lack of team speed.
While Florida’s return game has yet to produce many highlights, the Gators are confident in their big legs, kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend. Pineiro is coming off a game which he made his third field goal this season of 50-plus yards. Townsend averages 47.1 yards per punt, second best in SEC.