South Carolina Football: Florida Gators preview

The Florida Gators have their lowest SEC football expectations in some time heading into 2023. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]
The Florida Gators have their lowest SEC football expectations in some time heading into 2023. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun] /

This weekend, Shane Beamer’s South Carolina football team will face off with the Florida Gators. Both teams need a win in a major way as the Gamecocks sit at 2-3 with a tough road ahead, and the Gators have a record of 4-2 but should be an underdog in most of their games down the stretch.

Williams-Brice Stadium will be at capacity for the 3:30 SECNetwork game, and Gamecock fans could play a big role in this one. Florida has lost 13 of their last 14 away from home (only beating Texas A&M during the Aggies’ 2022 swoon). Carolina, in contrast, has won 3 in a row and 6 out of 7 in Columbia. In fact, under Beamer, USC is 12-4 in home contests.

The series has been a close one overall in recent years, even if not all of the individual games have been tightly contested. In the last 13 games in the SEC East rivalry, Florida leads the series matchup 7-6. As close as the win-loss record has been since 2010, however, only four of those games have finished with a scoring margin of seven points or fewer.

The last two games, in particular, have been ugly blowouts. In 2021, South Carolina football smacked Florida around Williams-Brice Stadium all night to win 40-17 (setting a record for points against UF). Last season, the Gators returned the favor, delivering a 38-6 shellacking in the Swamp.

The two teams have looked incompetent at times this season and like potential SEC East troublemakers at other points.

South Carolina football enters the game as a very slight favorite in the game, and the 1 to 2.5-point spreads are indicative of expectations for a close game.

The two quarterbacks could be the most important players in the game as Florida signal-caller Graham Mertz has played some of the best football of his career up to this point in 2023, and Spencer Rattler has done the same.

The two gunslingers have struggled with accuracy and decision-making at times in their careers, but those warts appear to be things of the past. Both QB1s have completed over 70% of their passes this season and have been among the five best quarterbacks in the SEC. Neither team has been good at rushing the passer this season, so fans can expect efficient days from both Rattler and Mertz.

While the QBs are the most important individuals for Saturday afternoon’s matchup, the most important units are the big fellas up front.

South Carolina has only lost two games under Shane Beamer when they have been able to rush for over 100 yards. If the inconsistent Gamecock offensive line can get enough push against the Florida defensive front for Mario Anderson and DK Joyner to have success on the ground, South Carolina football fans will feel good about their team’s chances of pulling off the win.

Conversely, Florida’s offense is at its best when its running game is having success. In Florida’s four wins, the Gators have rushed for over 800 yards; in the two losses, Billy Napier’s team has combined for 82 rushing yards. If Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson can have success, it opens things up for Mertz and top target Ricky Pearsall to attack downfield.

The Florida defense has defended the pass well this year just based on the numbers, but the numbers could be misleading. The Gators haven’t played a very competitive game all season. Their three closest games (a loss @ Utah and wins at home against Tennessee and Charlotte) never had their outcomes in doubt.

Spencer Rattler and Xavier Legette will have opportunities to move the ball down the field if the Gamecock offensive line can protect the pocket. As one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the nation, however, Rattler has had to spend much of this season running for his life. If he can have time, he will have a good day.

Tackling will be paramount in this game. While Pearsall will go deep sometimes, Florida’s offense relies on Etienne and Johnson to break tackles and for the team’s receivers to rack up yards after the catch after short throws. Carolina’s linebackers and defensive backs must do well tackling in space in order to slow down a Florida offense that has been surprisingly productive in 2023.

A near must-win situation for both programs will make Saturday’s contest interesting no matter how well each team plays. In addition to the stakes for this season and the “revenge factor” for last year’s debacle in Gainesville, South Carolina football will have the added motivation of playing in front of a number of big-time recruits, as well.

Under Shane Beamer, Carolina is 2-0 coming off of Bye Weeks, so many Gamecock fans are confident in their team’s ability to bounce back from their defeat two weeks ago to the Tennessee Vols.

With this game off the schedule in 2024, the “final” (for now) installment of the annual Steve Spurrier Bowl will kick off at 3:30 on the SECNetwork and ESPN app.

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