GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida offense found the spark it’s been looking for in backup QB Austin Appleby, who made his third start and got the Gators off to a quick start in a 20-7 victory over South Carolina on Saturday.

Appleby started in Luke Del Rio’s absence and had many people wondering why he didn’t get a shot a week ago at Arkansas. For the second time this year, UF scored on its opening drive; both touchdowns have come with Appleby under center.

With Appleby, the Gators appear to have a better chance for a win next Saturday in Baton Rouge.

Tennessee’s victory over Kentucky on Saturday means if Florida wins at LSU in Week 12, it clinches the SEC East. If UF falls to the Tigers, it will need Tennessee to lose against Missouri (Nov. 19) or at Vanderbilt (No. 26).

In his return to The Swamp, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp’s offense struggled to move the ball. The Florida faithful could not have asked for a more fitting reunion.

What it means

Jim McElwain gets a victory in a game he absolutely could not lose against Muschamp. Florida improved to 5-2 in the SEC and controls its destiny in the race to Atlanta. The Vols are the only other East team still in contention.

What I liked

Florida: McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier mixed it up a bit in play-calling, working in some screens, a reverse and even the zone read. Appleby gives the Gators two big pluses over Del Rio, a stronger arm and more mobility – the coaches made sure to take advantage of both.

LB David Reese had huge shoes to fill in the absence of Jarrad Davis, and he didn’t look much like a true freshman. In the first quarter, he read a screen play perfectly to come up with a big stop on 3rd-and-4 and force a punt. It was one of many times he would be right in the middle of the action.

Despite numerous injuries to the front seven, the Gators had no trouble pressuring South Carolina freshman quarterback Jake Bentley.

In his four years at Florida, Ahmad Fulwood’s highlights have been few and far between. The senior wideout stepped up after having lost his starting spot to Tyrie Cleveland. He caught an 18-yard touchdown pass and used his big frame (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) to haul in a jump ball for a 30-yard gain.

South Carolina: When UF safety Marcus Maye was injured near the Gamecocks’ sideline, Muschamp went to check on his former player. Muschamp recruited Maye, a senior, to Florida in 2012 and coached him for three seasons.

QB Jake Bentley does his share of freshman things, but he wasn’t rattled by playing on the road against a pair of future NFL cornerbacks (Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson). He was 18-for-33 with 213 yards and an interception. He has been better, but wasn’t the reason South Carolina lost. The rookie has a bright future.

The Gamecocks’ defense slowed down the Gators and forced field goals, but the offense wasn’t able to chip away at the lead until it was too late, scoring at the 6:53 mark in the fourth quarter.

What I didn’t like

Florida: The Gators left points on the field with two fumbles inside the South Carolina 30-yard line. Although Jordan Scarlett was running well, McElwain subbed in RB Mark Thompson at the Gamecocks’ 22-yard line, and he fumbled the ball away. In the early second quarter, third-string center TJ McCoy and Appleby botched the exchange on the USC 5-yard line.

South Carolina: Gamecocks receivers had a bad case of the drops. When your freshman quarterback is making the throws against a tough secondary in a hostile environment, you can’t drop catchable balls and expect to pull off an upset. South Carolina also failed to take advantage of Florida’s first-half turnovers.

The Will Muschamp-Kurt Roper offense was in vintage form back in The Swamp, as the Gamecocks ended the vast majority of their drives with a punt.

Who’s the man

Appleby gives the Gators some confidence heading into a very difficult final stretch, with back-to-back road contests at LSU and FSU. He shares this honor with Reese who exceeded all expectations in his first career start.

Key play

Eddy Pineiro made a 54-yard field goal at the 7:28 mark in the third quarter to extend the Gators’ lead to 17-0. The three-score advantage clinched the game for all intents and purposes.

Up next

The Gators close out SEC play next Saturday against LSU in Baton Rouge as part of the compromise to makeup the game postponed due to Hurricane Matthew. The Gamecocks get a tuneup against Western Carolina, but need the victory to qualify for a bowl berth.