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November 14, 2008

Spurrier provides dangerous test for Florida

MORE: South Carolina-Florida preview

Steve Spurrier led Florida to its first national championship, and his team almost denied the Gators their second.

Two years ago, Spurrier-led South Carolina were on the verge of upsetting Florida until defensive end Jarvis Moss blocked a last-second field-goal attempt, allowing the Gators to escape with a 17-16 victory.

A loss would have eliminated Florida from national championship contention. Instead, the Gators went on to win the crown.

"If I have a vote I think that's the greatest play in the history of Florida football," Florida coach Urban Meyer said of Moss' block. "It was certainly a monumental moment in my life and our program's life. That is one of the finest plays that I have ever been a part of."

Florida (8-1) is in a similar position this season. Once again, a loss would eliminate Florida from the national championship picture. And once again, a solid South Carolina team (7-3) coached by Spurrier is coming to Gainesville.

Spurrier doesn't need to look back two years to give the Gamecocks proof that an upset is possible. Rather, he points out that six weeks ago, Ole Miss won in Gainesville. And South Carolina beat Ole Miss.

"Ole Miss beat them," Spurrier said. "Ole Miss went in there and got a break or two, hit a big play, hit a big run, hung in there and found a way to beat them.

"So, if Ole Miss can go in there and beat them, we've got to believe we've got a chance to go in there and beat them."

Meyer doesn't disagree.

Behind quarterback Tim Tebow and receivers Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy, Florida averages 42.8 points to lead the SEC. South Carolina, though, in its first year under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, ranks in the top 10 nationally in total defense (third) and scoring defense (10th) . The Gamecocks have held six opponents to 17 points or fewer, and none have managed more than 24 points.

"We're going to have to be very efficient and make sure that our offensive line blocks their people," Meyer said. "If we don't, it's going to be a long day."

South Carolina's offense has sputtered at times, and last week Spurrier alternated quarterbacks Stephen Garcia and Chris Smelley. But with a good defensive effort, a couple of turnovers and a little luck, the Gamecocks could again put Florida's national championship aspirations at risk.

"We'll certainly go down there with the attitude that we really don't have anything to lose," Spurrier said. "We're pretty huge underdogs, which is OK. But we're going to go down there and pitch it around and line up and see how our defense ranks up with their offense."

Who gets the edge?

Florida rush offense vs. South Carolina rush defense
The Gators average just less than 200 rushing yards per game, and they've rushed for at least 185 yards in each of the past five games. Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin have rushed for more than 300 yards each and have combined for 21 touchdowns. South Carolina ranks 11th in the country in run defense. The Gamecocks have held three of their past four opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. SS Emanuel Cook leads the Gamecocks with 76 tackles.
Edge: Florida

Florida pass offense vs. South Carolina pass defense
Tebow has passed for 300 yards once and that was in a loss to Ole Miss. But in a five-game winning streak since that loss, he has completed at least 65 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Harvin and Louis Murphy are productive deep threats. The Gators don't give up many sacks because of Tebow's mobility. South Carolina has 24 sacks and LB Eric Norwood leads with seven. Overall, the Gamecocks are fourth in the country in pass defense and have allowed only five touchdown passes.
Edge: South Carolina

South Carolina rush offense vs. Florida rush defense
The Gamecocks' running game is among the most anemic in the country. Running back Mike Davis leads the team in rushing with 479 yards and hasn't reached 100 yards in a game since the opener. South Carolina has failed to rush for 100 yards as a team in five games this season. LB Brandon Spikes leads a Florida defense that ranks 17th in the country against the run. The Gators have not allowed a rushing touchdown in the past three games and have allowed just five total.
Edge: Florida

South Carolina pass offense vs. Florida pass defense
Coach Steve Spurrier often is quick to replace quarterbacks, and last week he alternated Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia on every play. Both have had good moments this season, but their inconsistency obviously frustrates Spurrier. Kenny McKinley is a productive receiver with 35 catches and four touchdowns, and big-play TE Jared Cook has 33 grabs. No one else has more than 24 catches. Maybe that's because South Carolina's quarterbacks have had difficulty getting rid of the football. The Gamecocks have allowed a whopping 33 sacks, and that must be a tantalizing stat for Florida, which has posted 19 sacks. The Gators rank 17th nationally in pass defense and have grabbed 14 interceptions. SS Ahmad Black has five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Edge: Florida

Florida special teams vs. South Carolina special teams
Few teams if any are performing better than Florida in the kicking game. Jonathan Phillips hasn't missed a field-goal attempt. Chas Henry is averaging 43 yards per punt and half his 28 punts have downed inside the 20. The Gators have blocked five punts and two kicks. Brandon James averages 19.3 yards on punt returns and has taken two back for touchdowns; he also averages 26.5 yards on kickoff returns. The Gators' punt-coverage team is excellent, but the kickoff coverage has been spotty at times. South Carolina's special teams haven't been nearly as strong. K Ryan Succop has hit 17-of-26 field-goal attempts, including 7-of-12 from 40 yards and beyond. The coverage unit and kick-return teams have been solid, the punt-return unit and P Spencer Lanning just so-so.
Edge: Florida

Florida coaches vs. South Carolina coaches
Florida's Urban Meyer has 78 victories and a national title in eight seasons as a coach. Spurrier has 170 career victories and won a national championship at Florida. South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson took over a unit that struggled in 2007 and has transformed it into the third-ranked defense in the country. Florida's Charlie Strong, a former Spurrier assistant, has done a good young with a young Florida defense this season.
Edge: Florida

X-factor: Never underestimate the Spurrier mystique, especially when it comes to Florida. No victory is assured with Spurrier on the opposing sideline. Two years ago, he took a vastly inferior South Carolina team to Gainesville and only a last-second blocked field goal enabled the eventual national champions to escape with a 17-16 victory.

Florida will win if: Tebow and Co. must capitalize on early scoring opportunities to prevent South Carolina from staying in contention and gaining confidence as the game progresses. The Gators are more talented and should prevail unless they are thwarted by mistakes.

South Carolina will win if: The Gamecocks will have to play close to a perfect game. The defense is good enough to keep South Carolina close, but it can't allow big plays. Offensively, the Gamecocks have to have some running success and keep their inconsistent quarterbacks out of obvious passing situations. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, Spurrier may be able to manufacture a big play or two to pull off an upset.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Florida 34, South Carolina 17
Tom Dienhart: Florida 29, South Carolina 17
David Fox: Florida 28, South Carolina 14
Mike Huguenin: Florida 31, South Carolina 17
Steve Megargee: Florida 27, South Carolina 14

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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