Our hated enemies.
Time to travel to Gainesville to take on the top-five Gators. Florida is one of the best teams in the nation, and this will be a very, very difficult game for us to win. The Gators have beaten Vandy, Georgia, and LSU, all teams that we lost to, by around 30 points per game. They beat Kentucky, a team we struggled to beat by seven, by about 60 points. They also lost to a team we beat, but it's safe to say that they haven't play like they did against Ole Miss since that game. Make no mistake; the odds are stacked high against us.
That said, we're a good team and are capable of hanging with the Gators. To do it, we'll have to play our best game of the year and maybe get a little luck, but Ole Miss has taught us that the Gators are not invincible. Here are my three keys to victory.
Win the Turnover Battle
One of the truisms of football is that turnovers are a great equalizer. If you go back and dissect a number of great upsets, one thing you'll likely see is that the underdog won the turnover battle. If you give up a lot of turnovers, it doesn't matter how great your QB is, how big your linemen are, or how fast your receivers are: you're likely going to lose. Although Florida looked sluggish against Ole Miss, they still would have won easily if not for a couple of lost fumbles in their own territory that led to 10 points for the Rebels. Whether they give them to us or we force them, we need to get some takeaways and not commit any of our own.
Of course, the idea of a team with one of the nation's worst turnover margins winning the turnover battle against a team with one of the best margins is difficult to conceive. The Gators do not turn the ball over much. First of all, their passing attack relies largely on low risk short throws to players who can get lots of yards after the catch. Second of all, Tim Tebow is a smart player who knows when to hold onto the ball or throw it away. However, as Ole Miss, as well as Auburn and Georgia last year, has shown us, if you can get your defensive players in the backfield to pressure Tebow and his band of speedsters, you can force them to make mistakes. That's easier said than done; if we blitz a lot and aren't successful, Florida will beat us with down-field throws. However, blitzing seems like the only way to have any hope against Florida's offense, so we're going to have to do lots of it. Ellis Johnson has done nothing but impress me this year, so there's hope that he has a good plan.
On the flip side of things, we have to protect the ball. While the Gators have generally played extremely well over the past few weeks, they've also feasted on the mistakes of their enemies. If we give up a couple of early picks or fumbles, this game will quickly turn into another TD derby for Florida. They're hard enough to stop at all, but they're nearly impossible to stop if you give them a short field. Unfortunately, we haven't protected the ball well this year. Going into this game with an inexperienced freshman and a sophomore who's known for throwing interceptions as our QBs does not seem promising. However, both have played well at times and we have to hope for the best. If Blake Mitchell can go into the Swamp and appear poised, Stephen Garcia and Chris Smelley can do the same.
Special Teams Play
Florida has one of the most productive group of special teams units in the country. They have a great return man in Brandon James. They block kicks. They do it all. Along with turnovers, they've used great returns and special teams gaffes by their opponents to roll up their absurd victory margins. Again, the Ole Miss game was the exception here, as the Rebels blocked the game-tying PAT en route to the victory.
The Gamecocks also have good special teams. Like Florida, special teams play cost us in one game--Vanderbilt--but we've been solid since then. We will be without return guy Chris Culliver in the first half, but Captain Munnerlyn is also capable on returns. We've avoided giving up lots of blocked kicks and got one of our own against Kentucky. We need to continue doing these things against Florida. We simply can't afford to give them any gift-wrapped points.
Last but not least, Ryan Succop needs to have a good game. If this game ends up being close and winnable, we need Succop to make every one of his kicks. Unfortunately, the Swamp is probably not the best medicine for Succop's mental woes. It is (1) loud as hell and (2) a place where Succop has some bad memories.
Gamecock Man's least favorite memory as a Gamecocks fan.
All of this said, I feel confident that Ryan will win the game for us if he gets the chance to.
Get a Quick Start and Don't Let the Game Get Out of Hand
If I'm not mistaken, Tim Tebow has never led the Gators to a fourth-quarter comeback. In fact, it seems like Florida usually loses when they go into the fourth quarter without a huge lead, although there are a few notable exceptions like the UF-Miami game earlier this year. The Gators tend to do two things: either win big or lose close. I'm not sure if there's any logic behind this trend, but if there is, it suggests that if we can keep this game close going into the endgame, we stand a good chance. It also, of course, suggests that we're in for a rout if Florida jumps out to an early lead of two TDs or more.
cocknfire has argued that our chances in this game depend on our defense playing a great game, which is certainly true. However, even if our defense plays lights out, the Gators are still going to score between 20-30 points. This is not Tennessee and we can't hope to hold Florida to under 10 unless half of Florida's offense wakes up with dysentery. Therefore, our offense has to play its best game of the year for us to have a chance. We have to match Florida every time they score and we have to score at least 28 points.
Doing these things, of course, depends on a number of factors. The offensive line has to play well, and Florida will test them more than Arkansas did last week. Garcia and Smelley have to be precise--we won't win if they overthrow their receivers as much as they did last week. Spurrier has to have a good gameplan. Our coach has thrown in some new wrinkles over the past few weeks, so let's hope that we have a tactical advantage and can execute.
A win in this game would undoubtedly be the signature win to date of the Spurrier era and maybe of our time in the SEC. It would be much bigger than our win over the Gators in 2005. Then, Florida was in a transitional phase. Now, they're a mighty juggernaut, perhaps the best in the land if they're as good as they've seemed over the past few weeks. Beating a team like that is something that we haven't done since we joined the SEC.
Unfortunately, I don't see it happening. I do think we can keep this close if we avoid mistakes, but in the end, Florida just has too much firepower and will eventually score their 30 points or so, and our offense won't be able to keep up unless we play much better than we have throughout the season. I'm going with 34-23 Gators as my prediction. That said, I have my fingers crossed that Spurrier has some surprises cooked up for his old team and that Garcia and Smelley are going to look like worldbeaters. If those things happen, and our defense plays like it's been playing, we could have good cause to celebrate tomorrow night.