77F Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, Gainesville, FL
Already enjoying a renaissance in coach Will Muschamp's second season, Florida can secure a return to the SEC championship by prevailing in its next two high-profile matchups.
It should be significantly healthier for this important stretch.
The third-ranked Gators hope to have five starters back for Saturday's visit from former coach Steve Spurrier's No. 9 South Carolina squad, which is seeking to bolster its chances of returning to Atlanta.
Florida (6-0, 5-0) has made the most SEC championship appearances (10) but hasn't played for the title since Tim Tebow and the then-No. 1 Gators were upended 32-13 by No. 2 Alabama three years ago. Florida is off to its best start since that team opened 12-0, and is ranked second in the initial BCS poll.
The Gators, who are a win away from matching last season's total, would take a couple of significant strides in their attempt to return to prominence if they could knock off the Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1) and No. 13 Georgia in successive weeks.
"At the end of the day, we're about winning championships on and off the field here at Florida, and it's another step to Atlanta," Muschamp said.
While South Carolina had its unbeaten start snapped with a 23-21 loss to then-No. 9 LSU last Saturday, Florida took sole possession of the division lead with a 31-17 win at Vanderbilt.
Jeff Driskel ran for 177 yards - the most by a Florida quarterback - and three touchdowns despite the loss of two offensive linemen during the game and the absence of another. The Gators totaled 326 yards on the ground, 10 shy of matching their season high.
Center Jon Harrison (arm) and left tackle Xavier Nixon (upper body) are expected to return Saturday as is guard James Wilson, who didn't make the trip to Nashville after injuring his eye in practice.
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins will also likely return after sitting out last week with an ailing hamstring, and defensive end Dominique Easley is expected to be back after missing two games with an injured left knee.
"We're hopeful to have all those guys back," Muschamp said. "They're all definitely going to be fine or probable at the worst."
Receiver Latroy Pittman (ankle), however, is questionable, while tackle Matt Patchan (pectoral) and cornerback Cody Riggs (foot) are expected to sit out.
With Jenkins and Easley expected back, though, the Gators are hoping to have enough to stop Gamecocks star running back Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw, who are both eager to rebound from disappointing performances.
Lattimore, who has 584 yards and 10 touchdowns, was held to a season-low 35 on 13 carries in the defeat, which ended a school-record 10-game win streak. Shaw was picked off twice in the fourth quarter, his third game with multiple interceptions out of 24 over his Gamecocks career.
Shaw was also sacked a season-high four times while South Carolina's pass rush recorded just one. The Gamecocks had totaled 25 sacks through their first six games with highly touted sophomore Jadeveon Clowney compiling a team-best 6 1/2.
Despite last week's disappointing performance, South Carolina can move into a tie with Florida and get back in the title game picture with a victory Saturday.
Lattimore, though, did not practice Wednesday because of a bruised hip and Spurrier says his junior star might not start Saturday. Spurrier had said Lattimore was running well earlier in the week, but the injury kept him out of Wednesday's workout. Lattimore arrived at practice and watched from the sidelines.
If Lattimore can't go, Spurrier says backup Kenny Miles and freshman Mike Davis would handle the load at tailback.
South Carolina will be without defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles after he was suspended for throwing a punch against LSU. Quarles was unlikely to play this week anyway since he hadn't practiced because of a shoulder injury.
Despite Lattimore's absence, the Gamecocks' rushing attack still managed to spoil Muschamp's first coaching matchup with Spurrier, who won a national title during his stint at Florida from 1990 to 2001. South Carolina registered 215 of its 299 yards on the ground in a 17-12 home victory Nov. 12 with Shaw totaling 88 and two touchdowns.
Lattimore, who missed that game and five others due to a torn ACL, had 212 yards and three touchdowns in the previous visit to Florida, a 36-14 victory on Nov. 13, 2010.
That performance helped end an 0-12 drought in Gainesville, and South Carolina used that win to reach its only SEC title game, a 56-17 loss to eventual BCS champ Auburn.
The Gamecocks, who trail 6-23-3 in the series, are seeking their first three-game win streak over Florida.