By staff writer Robbie Andreu and correspondent Graham Hall
Who: Florida (3-5, 3-4 SEC) vs. South Carolina (6-3, 4-3)
When: 12 p.m. today
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Gamecocks favored by 5.5
Sitting at 3-5 with just three games left to play, Florida is in danger of finishing the season with a losing record and missing a bowl. Unless the Gators win out, UF will likely miss a bowl for just the second time in 22 seasons. And while the Gators aren’t looking ahead at any games remaining on the schedule, the team aims to finish the season strong and make a postseason bowl. “That’s the goal. We’ve been talking about it in practice. Just right now, we had a little meeting and everyone’s fired up,” UF kicker Eddy Pineiro said. “You want to do it for the coaches and do it for the seniors.”
Swiss cheese defense
If there’s been a consistent positive for Florida over the past decade, it’s been the play of the team’s defense, especially when it comes to keeping opponents out of the end zone. But over the past two weeks, Florida’s scoring defense was abysmal at a record-setting level. With UF’s 42-7 and 45-16 losses to Georgia and Missouri, respectively, the Gators surrendered at least 42 points in consecutive games for the first time since a trio of losses in the 1917 season. That was during Florida’s first decade of varsity football, meaning UF’s defense hadn’t seen such levels of futility in a century.
Florida still looking for fumbles
Although the Gators have eight interceptions on the season, good for second-most in the SEC, Florida is the only SEC team that has yet to recover a fumble in 2017. And now would be an ideal time to start causing the opposition to put the ball on the ground, seeing as Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley went nearly a month without throwing an interception before tossing two to the Bulldogs in a 24-10 loss last week. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in turnover margin, meaning UF will look to hold onto the ball while the defense works to find new ways to regain possession. “(Will) Muschamp, he’s done a great job creating turnovers. They play a lot of man free, man coverage and say, ‘You have to beat us’,” UF interim coach Randy Shannon said. “Now, if we’re on top of what we doing and declaring who’s the middle linebacker every time, you know, we can create some problems for them also which we can take advantage of. And that’s going to be the biggest key of the game.”
Urgency remains a priority
Florida’s pass offense ranks dead last in the SEC with 177 passing yards per game, and the Gators have just six touchdowns through the air this season, which also ranks at the bottom of the conference. Against a talented Muschamp-led defense, the Gators will have to do something they’ve struggled with all season: move the ball efficiently and consistently on offense. To do that, Florida has spent the week preparing to have more urgency from the opening kick. “Like anything, you always want to start fast, move the field, score on the first drive. You’ve always got to score the first drive, and defensively got to hold somebody out of scoring,” Shannon said. “Those are things that we work every day.”
Catching up with ‘Champ
Many veteran Gator players who were recruited to UF by Will Muschamp are looking forward to hooking up with their former coach today. Interim UF head coach Randy Shannon said he has no problem with that. Handshakes, hugs and conversations are fine before and after the game. But the Gators don’t need to be showing Muschamp any love during the game. “A lot of guys will go out and hug Muschamp. Khairi (Clark) is going to hug Muschamp. Guys are going to do that. You don’t take anything away from young men who were recruited by another opponent. That guy spent a lot of time putting faith in the guy that recruited him to come to Florida. He gets the right to go over there and hug him, shake his hand. But now, when the time for football comes, he’s going to turn on a switch and compete for the Florida Gators and compete against South Carolina,” Shannon said.
The Gators have struggled on offense since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season. One of the biggest problems has been inconsistency at quarterback. And injuries. And transfers. And a lot of other stuff at the position. What it all has led to is no long-term stability at the most important position on the field. The Gators can’t seem to find a full-time quarterback that they feel comfortable with and are willing to go with on a full-time basis. That latest QB UF has selected is Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, who will be making his second consecutive start. This is the seventh consecutive season that the Gators have started a backup quarterback in at least two games. Zaire is Florida’s 12th different starting quarterback since 2010, the most in the SEC during that time.
More poor offense
Florida isn’t the only school in the SEC whose fans are whining and complaining about a lack of offense. The same thing is going on at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks are actually statistically worse than the Gators on offense. South Carolina is averaging only 335.2 yards a game — three yards less that UF, which is averaging 338.1. The Gamecocks have been fairly productive through the air with quarterback Jake Bentley, but South Carolina is really struggling running the ball, averaging a mere 114.6 yards a game. The Carolina offense looks a lot like the offenses UF had under Muschamp. The difference right now is that Muschamp is 6-3 and bowl eligible in his second season, and the South Carolina fans are excited about that. As for one team pulling out of its offensive slump today, South Carolina has the best chance going up a UF defense that has given up 87 points in the past two games combined.
Today’s game questions
- Will the Gators play with more emotion and energy than they did in the lopsided loss at Missouri a week ago?
- How will Malik Zaire do in his second consecutive start at quarterback?
- The UF defense has not touched the opposing quarterback in the past two games. Can the Gators get to South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley?
- Are the Gators going to go the entire season without recovering a fumble?
- Can the Gators get off to a better start than they did against Missouri and Georgia?
South Carolina 35, Florida 10
Florida’s young secondary vs. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley and the Carolina passing game:
After watching tape of Florida’s loss at Missouri last week, there is not question that South Carolina offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is going to put this game in the hands of Bentley and his wide receivers. UF’s youth, with true freshmen starting at cornerback, was revealed in a big way in the 45-16 loss to the Tigers. Missouri quarterback Drew Lock torched the Gators. He had receivers open throughout the game and had no trouble finding them. The big concern is how easily the WRs got behind the secondary for some big plays. Bentley is every bit as capable as Lock. Bentley has thrown for 1,986 yards and 14 touchdowns and is completing 61.2 percent of his passes. What gives the Gators hope in this matchup is the fact the Gamecocks are thin and struggling at wide receiver, where Bryan Edwards poses the biggest threat. Carolina often lines up with two tight ends. One of those tight ends, Hayden Hurst, is a go-to guy in the passing game. He will burn the Gators if they tried to cover him with a linebacker.