For the first time in 27 days, the South Carolina Gamecocks get to host a home game inside Williams-Brice Stadium. South Carolina takes on the 8-1 SEC East Champion Florida Gators Saturday at noon in a game that's about as winnable as one gets for a 3-6 team going up against a division champ.
While Florida may have just clinched the East and is on its way to Atlanta, this is also a team that only beat the 4-6 ECU Pirates by 7 at home earlier in the year, and barely escaped the stingy 'Dores in a 9-7 slugging last weekend. The Gamecocks are underdogs (again), but maybe this is their week to earn themselves an upset and get paid for their efforts. After all, Shawn Elliot is undefeated at home.
Here's three keys to the game and a prediction.
1. Plug the run. Florida currently ranks 104th in the nation in rushing offense. Which is good news until you learn the Gamecocks are ranked 109th in stopping the run. In all likelihood, these underwhelming rankings will cancel each other out on the field. But, if South Carolina can wreak havoc between the gaps and stuff the run, it'll put more pressure on Treon Harris to sustain a passing game, something he's struggled with the past two weeks.
Following the Gators escape from Vandy, head coach Jim McIlwain called on his skill position players to step up in support of Harris. One of those playmakers whose become inconsistent is running back Kelvin Taylor. Sure, Taylor gained 121 yards and 2 TD's against Georgia, but he was also limited to a total of 72 yards combined against LSU and Vandy. Hopefully the Gamecocks can have the same kind of luck as the Tigers and 'Dores.
2. Win the turnover battle. Florida currently leads the SEC with 19 turnovers. While their offense has lacked consistency, the defense has showed up every week, holding opposing teams to 13 points or under in six of their nine games and winning the turnover margin all year.
The Gamecocks have been decent in limiting turnovers under Perry Orth, but they've also coughed up a couple that don't need reminding. On the other end, defensive coordinator John Hoke has preached all season for turnovers. The Gamecocks currently rank in the middle of the FBS with 15 forced turnovers for the year with a +3 turnover margin as opposed to the Gators +9.
Win the turnover battle, and this game will be up for grabs.
3. Alive and alert. I spoke earlier this week regarding how important it is for Shawn Elliot that an intimidating force shows up in the home crowd. Even though the Gamecocks haven't played at home in over 3 weeks and fans should be anxious to return to their seats, their also greeting a 3-6 team in the midst of their worst nine game start this century. Couple that with a noon start, and there's no telling what kind of crowd will show up Saturday.
That said, I firmly believe that if the Gamecock faithful treats this one like a primetime matchup under the lights, it'll pay dividends. Sure, it's more difficult to get amped up for a noon kickoff, but this team is happy to be home, and it's time for the faithful to thank them for their efforts with a welcoming enthusiasm from the opening Sandstorm.
On the field, the Gators offense isn't dominant, and their running game has been sporadic this season. If the Gamecocks defense can force obvious passing downs, it'll give the crowd a chance to get riled up in hopes of getting that Gators o-line jumpy and Treon Harris rattled.
This game was all but in the books for the Gators last year until former walk-on Carlton Heard blocked a punt late in the fourth quarter to set up the Gamecocks game-tying score. Just like last year, I expect this one to be a close, hard fought game for four quarters. The Gators defense is tough, and it'll be hard to put up six. Look for a big day from Elliot Fry and a potential game-winning kick.
I'm gonna keep the hope the alive. Gamecocks 23 - Gators 20.