Post-Spring Previews: Florida Gators

After taking on Arkansas in Fayetteville, the Gamecocks return to Columbia to round out the SEC slate against the Florida Gators. The Gators, of course, are near-consensus picks to repeat as SEC and national champions. Therefore, even if we're playing well at this point and even though the game is at home, we can expect to be a sizeable underdog. With good reason, too: the Gators return the vast majority of the significant contributors from last year's dominant group. They do lose a few key players, such as all-purpose threat Percy Harvin, but those losses should be negated by greater overall experience and depth and the infusion of young talent Urban Meyer has brought to Gainesville in his past few recruiting classes. The Gators may not be unbeatable, but they're the closest thing to it that we'll see all year, and better teams than us will probably lose to them by multiple touchdowns. That being the case, this is obviously going to be a tough upset to pull.

Let's take a look at the Gators.

Offense

The Gators run Urban Meyer's famous spread-option offense. Fellow Gamecocks blogger Photon Torpedo Tube put up a good breakdown of this scheme last year before our game, so I would suggest you take a look at it if you want to know more about Meyer's offense and how to defend it.

Quarterbacks

Florida returns Tim Tebow for one final season. Tebow, of course, needs no introduction. I have little doubt he'll go down in history as one of the very best college quarterbacks ever. Obviously, the Gators have a huge advantage in this department, as they do against every team not located in Austin, TX or Norman, OK.

Verdict: Strong advantage Florida

Running Backs

Florida led the SEC in rushing last year despite not using a traditional running game and not playing a true running back on most plays. Typically, this involved running the option with Tebow under center and a group of hybrid receiver / tailback guys like Harvin, Jeffrey Demps, and Chris Rainey running out of the backfield and breaking off long runs with their speed. Expect the Gators to continue to run the ball well, but also expect them to run out of more traditional sets this year, as Meyer has claimed that he plans to run out of the I at times this year in order to get Tebow ready for the NFL, to utilize the skills of more traditional tailback Emmanuel Moody, and to generally mix things up. The Gators will likely shift between these sets and their spread formations, which best utilize the skills Tebow, Demps, Rainey, and highly recruited speedster Andre Debose bring to the table.

I'm tempted to only give the Gators a small advantage here, as I am beginning to firmly believe that we will rise into the upper half of the SEC in rushing yards this year. However, I just can't do that at this point; what we know for sure is that Florida was unstoppable on the ground last year and that we were one of the conference's worst.

Verdict: Strong advantage Florida

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

The Gators lose some key contributors here due to the departures of Harvin and Louis Murphy. They will rely on star junior tight end Aaron Hernandez to carry the load. Luckily for the rest of the SEC, Hernandez will likely be gone after this year, as he's a prime NFL prospect. The Gators will rely on guys like David Nelson and Riley Cooper to help Hernandez fill the void left by Harvin and Murphy.

I only see a slight advantage for Florida here, mainly due to the fact that these Gators are untested. However, there's plenty of talent around and we can probably expect someone we haven't heard a lot about yet to make a big contribution. Plus, the Gators have a good enough quarterback and all-around offense to negate the lack of experience here. The passing game will be fine for Florida.

Verdict: Slight advantage Florida

Offensive Line

Offensive line is what's getting a lot of attention as a potential concern for the Gators, who lose both tackles and are still trying to settle on a rotation. Finding competent replacements at those positions will be key for the Gators if they want to win another national title. Florida does return a talented guard duo in brothers Maurkice and Mike Pouncey. The Gators may play Carl Johnson at left tackle. The other positions are up for grabs between a group of unprovens.

I give Florida a slight advantage here. The Gators certainly have cause for concern at offensive line and will be tested right away when they take on Tennessee's formidable defense in week three. (I actually think this game will be much closer than most people if--and this is a big if-Tennessee plays safe on offense and doesn't allow Florida's formidable defense to blow the game open with turnovers.) However, as usual, the talent is there. Like last year, this line will probably be playing well by the time Florida plays us, as they will have had time to figure out a good lineup and establish chemistry.

Let's take a look at defenses after the jump.

Defense

As most Carolina fans know, former USC defensive coordinator Charlie Strong heads up Florida's defense. Strong has done a great job leading the Gators, as he did while at Carolina. Strong tends to run out of the 4-3 and nickel back sets. He's known for being agressive.

Defensive Line

The Gators return all their starters at defensive line. That includes end Carlos Dunlap, one of the country's best. The tackle positions go to Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders, while Jermaine Cunningham plays opposite Dunlap. As if this group of starters wasn't good enough, the Gators are very deep here, too, and should be able to rotate frequently and weather any major injuries.

I give the Gators a slight advantage here. I like our starting defensive line a lot, but Florida's depth gives them an adantage, especially with this game coming late in the year.

Verdict: Slight advantage Florida

Linebackers

Like Eric Norwood, Florida's Brandon Spikes is a defensive leader that decided to come back for one more year. Spikes will be flanked by Ryan Stamper and Brandon Hill. Dustin Doe and A.J. Jones will also see time outside.

The Gators get another slight advantage here. I'm inclined to believe that Eric Norwood is as good as any linebacker in the league, including Spikes. I also think Rodney Paulk is fully capable of holding his own. However, depth is again an issue for us here, especially in comparison to Florida.

Verdict: Slight advantage Florida

Secondary

The Gators return a talented, deep secondary that will be one of the nation's best. Major Wright and Ahmad Black will start at safety, while Janoris Jenkins and Joe Haden will line up at corner. The Gators have plenty of guys on the depth chart that can fill in if injuries occur or in packages that have more defensive backs. Just think; Matthew Stafford ripped this group a new one only two years ago. That seems long ago now.

I've gone on record many times this off-season saying that I think we'll have problems at secondary. Reports out of August practice are that we might be better than expected, but I still don't think we'll be as good as this group.

Verdict: Strong advantage Florida

Special Teams

Senior Brandon James is likely the nation's best return man; he's certainly the best for punt returns. Florida's talented depth chart gives them plenty of guys on coverage units that would start for most teams. Punter Chas Henry is a good one. Kicker Jonathan Phillips was accurate last year but was very rarely asked to kick longer field goals, so his range is a question mark if the issue ever comes up. Overall, a really good group.

I'll give Florida a slight advantage here, mainly due to James and their greater experience at kicker.

Verdict: Slight advantage Florida

Head Coaches

You know, the days when people were favorably comparing Steve Spurrier to Urban Meyer seem like they were just yesterday but at the same time seem so far away now. You remember: we beat Florida in 2005, completely outplayed them in 2006 but lost due to Jarvis Moss's special teams heroics, and were riding high early in 2007 while Florida struggled out of the gate. Then the bottom fell through on Spurrier's program: five straight losses to end 2007, including a blowout loss to Florida in Columbia, and a mediocre 2008, including a huge blowout to the Gators in Gainesville in a game where Florida really made us look like an FCS team. Now, most say that Spurrier is washed up and that Urban is the best coach in the land. I would disagree that Spurrier is washed up--and I think others may too after couple of years of improved offense with Stephen Garcia under center--but I won't disagree that Urban is a fantastic coach. Whatever you want to believe about his professional ethics, the guy is an offensive genius and an amazing recruiter. Personally, I think he's supplanted Pete Carrol as the country's best coach. I'll go ahead and give Urban the big advantage here; he's at the top of his game, while Spurrier comes into this year with a lot to prove.

Verdict: Strong advantage Florida

Overall

As these predictions suggest, I don't at all like our chances in this game. Florida is simply going to be very, very good this year, and even if we end up being pretty good ourselves, I just think the Gators have more going for them across the board than we do. I do think this game will be closer this year than it was last year, but that's probably partially because last year's game should have been closer than it was; we weren't as bad last year as we played in the final three games. I think that we'll make this one interesting at times, but Florida will pull away for a comfortable victory in the end.

Prediction: 17-point Florida victory

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