Game of the Week: Spurrier heads to Swamp with division on the line
South Carolina is looking to capitalize on a rare opportunity to win the SEC East
A three-quarterback, hurry-up attack has breathed new life into Florida's season
SC is slumping heading into what some are calling biggest game in its history
The moment Steve Spurrier has been waiting for is here -- or almost here. At his introductory press conference in 2004, Spurrier told the adoring South Carolina faithful that his ultimate vision was "to win that game in the Georgia Dome." He was referring, of course, to the SEC Championship Game, which the Gamecocks have yet to reach during Spurrier's tenure. But if Spurrier can win Saturday in the stadium he once made the most feared in the nation, the Gamecocks will win the SEC East and punch their ticket to Atlanta. Florida, despite an ugly midseason three-game losing streak, can also reach Atlanta with a win. A winner-takes-all game for the SEC East would normally feature top 10 teams, but this game remains appointment viewing despite each team being ranked in the 20s.
1. When one quarterback isn't working, and two quarterbacks aren't working ... Urban Meyer promised to revamp the Florida attack during the off week following a 10-7 loss to Mississippi State, Florida's third straight. When Meyer emerged from the laboratory, he introduced a three-quarterback hurry-up system, with John Brantley, Trey Burton and Jordan Reed all lining up behind center at different points. The Gators put up 34 points and 450 yards against Georgia, then 55 points and 480 yards against Vanderbilt in back-to-back wins. Reed, who normally plays tight end, became a passer against Vanderbilt, completing 11-of-19 throws for 120 yards and a Tebow-esque fake-run-turned-pass for a touchdown. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound freshman, who played quarterback in high school, also ran 16 times for 84 yards, earning the designation of "beast" from Meyer. Brantley is still the passer, Burton mostly a runner and Reed a combo of both -- which will certainly keep the South Carolina defense off balance. The Gamecocks have been terrible against the pass (last in the SEC) and tough against the run (first in the SEC), so Florida will presumably attack through the air before unleashing a few trademark quarterback draws.
2. About that Arkansas game. Win or lose last week, the SEC East title was going to come down to the Florida game for South Carolina. And the Gamecocks played like it, getting whipped by Arkansas 41-20. Spurrier had the offense and defense watch the game film together this week to show just how well Arkansas blocked and tackled. Spurrier was particularly peeved by his secondary's efforts as Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett finished 21-for-30 for 303 yards and a touchdown. South Carolina did not run the ball particularly well, committed three turnovers, missed a field goal and never really threatened in the last quarter and a half. "We have to go down there with a lot more fire than we've had lately," Spurrier said.
3. How will South Carolina handle the moment? One South Carolina columnist has already labeled Saturday's game the biggest in program history. Meyer has urged citizens of the Swamp to get rowdy, bizarrely requesting "a couple hundred thousand people here packed outside, inside, wherever it is" for the blue out. Spurrier admitted the Gators have more experience in big games, but "to play your best football, you have to be somewhat relaxed. You can't be hyper and tensed up. We'll see if we can perform on the big stage." Quarterback Stephen Garcia has shown much more maturity this season than in years past and, with a running back like Marcus Lattimore by his side, shouldn't feel as much pressure to make a game-changing play. The Gamecocks know opportunities to win the SEC East are rare, so it's up to them to grab it while the traditional heavyweights are having down seasons.
Florida enters as a 6.5-point favorite. The Gators are 1-5 against the spread in their last six SEC home games, though they do own a 4-1 mark versus the number in their last five home games against South Carolina. Over the last two years, the Gamecocks have covered the spread in seven of the 10 games in which they were underdogs. Slight lean in the betting world toward South Carolina.
Over the last five years, Florida is 23-1 versus the SEC East.
SI.com NFL Draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup. Pauline evaluated Florida's top prospects earlier this season:
DL Devin Taylor, South Carolina: Taylor is an awesome presence on the defensive line. The sophomore looks like a power forward running around the football field, forcing the action. He has the power to defeat blocks and make plays behind the line of scrimmage and the athleticism to drop off the line and cover tight ends in the short field. Taylor is still rough around the edges, but comes with a great amount of upside. Grade: Second-round prospect.
OL Mike Pouncey, Florida: Pouncey, the Gators' starting guard the prior two seasons, has struggled since moving to center this year. Taking over for his brother Maurkice, the first-round selection of the Steelers last April, Mike's center snaps were an adventure early this season. At the next level he's likely to switch back to his old position, where he's proven himself to be a dominant run blocker. Grade: Third- to fourth-round prospect.
S Will Hill, Florida: The Gators' intimidating run defender in the secondary, Hill is a physical player with a decent amount of upside. Scouts like his athleticism but question his instincts in coverage. There's a better than 50-percent chance Hill enters the draft once the season ends. Grade: Fourth-round prospect.
DL-OLB: Cliff Matthews, South Carolina: Matthews was once compared to former Gamecock John Abraham, but his play has slid this season. At the top of his game, Matthews is an athletic defender who effectively rushes the passer and makes plays in pursuit of the ball handler. Grade: Fourth- to fifth-round prospect.
Garcia's performance against No. 1 Alabama in October bodes well for this winner-takes-all game in Gainesville. South Carolina won't pile up a ton of points, but it should be able to put some drives together, especially if Lattimore establishes the run. And while Arkansas picked apart South Carolina, Florida's aerial attack is a far cry from that of the Mallett-led Razorbacks. Florida is playing better than it has all season, and as delicious as a Florida-Auburn SEC championship would be (Cam Newton, anyone?), the Gamecocks will pull it out in the fourth quarter. SOUTH CAROLINA 23, FLORIDA 20
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