With a surprising 6-3 record, (4-3 SEC) and back-to-back upset road wins fresh in their minds, the USC Gamecocks can finally turn their attention to the game that has been talked about since last December. After a long 10 weeks, and an even longer off-season, it is time for Steve Spurrier to face off against the school that he turned into a national power. The time for idle speculation is over.
The stakes are huge for both schools. For USC, a victory guarantees them a 2nd-place finish in the SEC East, which would be their highest finish ever in the conference. For UF, it keeps alive its hopes for the Eastern Division crown, and the accompanying trip to Atlanta. But even deeper, and longer lasting than that, is the mental aspect of this game.
A victory by Steve Spurrier and his out-manned Gamecocks over Urban Meyer immediately turns up the heat to high for Meyer. The entire Gator Nation has alternately feared/looked forward to the game for months. They fear Spurrier's ability to get inside the head of a coach and a school ("Sit Ubu, Sit") and know that should he win Saturday, he will have started to accomplish the same feat with Meyer.
Yet, on paper it doesn't look like much of a game. The Gators statistically are better than USC in virtually every category. They outscore the Gamecocks by 4.5 points a game and hold opponents to 4.6 fewer points. They outrush the Gamecocks 152 ypg to 79, and throw for 224 ypg to 230, for a total advantage of 376 to 310 ypg.
Defensively Florida allows only 289 ypg, to USC's 346. Throw in their turnover ratio of +17 (compared to +2) and one starts to feel that a long night is in store for the Gamecocks. But is that justified?
Gator offense vs. Gamecock defense
As in other games this year, there is much more to this story than just the numbers. For example, UF's rash of injuries in its game Saturday against Vanderbilt: both Dallas Baker and DeShawn Wynn, two of their best offensive threats, suffered injuries that forced their departure from the game on Saturday, forcing the Gators to turn to backup players as they held on for a shocking 2-OT win against Vanderbilt.
Also, there is the style of play of the 2 teams. UF is a team that likes to move the ball in manageable amounts, and spread it around to different players. They are not known for their tendency to hit the "home-run." This is where the potential loss of Wynn and Baker could affect the UF offense. With Wynn being the leading UF rusher (at 497 total yards) and Baker the 2nd leading receiver (at 492 total yards) they will have to have other players step up should these men not be able to contribute.
Contrast this style of offense with USC's defense. The Gamecocks have developed a "bend but don't break philosophy" that has kept opponents between the 20's, for the most part. With less of a threat from a breakaway runner and a passing game that averages barely 7 yards a completion, this could allow the Gamecocks to focus a little differently defensively than they have the last few games. Throw in the fact that the aggressive and opportunistic Gamecocks lead the conference in sacks, while UF has given up more sacks than all but two teams, and we see one of the potentially defining areas of the game.
When the Gators do get deep inside USC territory, we see another interesting match up. UF does not do a very good job of punching it in once they get inside the Red-Zone. Of 41 visits this year, they have managed to score just 25 touchdowns. Ten of those 41 times they failed to score a single point. Against USC, they will face a team that has allowed only 17 touchdowns out of 38 visits all season. This is a matchup that could prove huge come Saturday.
Gamecock offense vs. Gator defense
According to raw statistics, the Gamecocks' offense is outmatched. After all, they are in last place in the conference in rushing, and face a team allowing just 189 yards per game passing. But this is where statistics can be your friend.
For starters, believe it or not, The Gamecocks aren't as bad running the ball as conventional wisdom allows. The 26 sacks, plus the numerous bad snaps from center during the season, have actually skewed some fairly decent efforts. Both Mike Davis and Daccus Turman are averaging more than 4 yards a carry. When the sacks are removed, USC averages 4.3 yards per carry. Though UF has a good run defense, it is no better than that of several other teams already played this year. With a modicum of blocking, The Gamecocks might be expected to run the ball with better results than "the stats" would imply.
When it comes to passing, we already know that the Gamecocks can throw the ball. The Gators have proven to be weak against the pass, as the Vanderbilt Commodores showed the world on Saturday. Throw in the fact that UF lost one of its star players when Cornerback Vernell Brown was injured Saturday, and it is fair to assume that USC will be able to move the ball through the air.
And here lies yet another of the potentially defining differences of the game. Florida does not have a break away threat on offense like Sidney Rice. Further more, USC as a team is more prone to score on a big play than is UF. For the season, UF has scored a total of 8 touchdowns (out of 33) of more than 20 yards. USC has scored 11 out of 29.
Also, USC is once again a much better team inside the red zone. We already know of UF's struggles inside the red zone. For USC though, red zone visits are a strength. For the season, USC has made it inside the red zone just 26 times ... but came away with 18 TDs. Of the remaining eight trips, three times they kicked a field goal, thus resulting in just five missed opportunities. Again, yet another potentially defining difference between the two teams.
Of course, we can't overlook special teams. In punting, kicking, and field goals, the two teams are fairly close, and neither has created a buzz for the play of these units. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, the same can't be said about turnovers; nobody can ignore the manner with which the Gators have stripped the ball from opponents this year. With a +17 margin, they far outshadow USC's +2 margin. This comes from their ability to hold onto the ball, andto take it away from their opponents. However, even this asset could be an Achilles' heel for the Gators.
Against Alabama, their secondary was burned for three touchdown passes, and gave up more than 280 yards on only 14 completions, while Vandy burned them for over 360 yards and four touchdowns. A team that believes everything written about it can be exploited. And that leads into the issue of stamina.
USC's 4th-quarter stamina has been the real story of the last 4 games, while UF's 4th-quarter breakdowns have been theirs. While USC won its last 4 games by being faster and stronger than its opponents in the second half, Florida has either lost, or almost lost, its last 3 games by running out of gas. UF scored no points in the second half against Georgia and LSU, and allowed Vandy to score 21 fourth quarter points to forge a tie. This is an area that USC clearly has the edge in.
And finally, there are the intangibles. Already mentioned is the Steve Spurrier effect. Not mentioned, but potentially just as important is the possibility that some of the Florida players may be more concerned with the outcome of the Georgia-Auburn game than they are the outcome of a game against a team that hasn't beaten them since 1933, as well as the mental exhaustion of both winning a 2-OT game as well as getting prepped from a visit the OBC.
All in all, everything points to a great game. Once again, USC fans need to expect an opponent move the ball well between the 20s, but those yards won't often be translated into points. USC should have the advantage of a loud crowd, an efficient offense, and a defense that will bend ... but not break. On offense, Davis and McKinley should have great days, in part because Rice will be double covered much of the day.
With Spurrier coaching, and the Gators focused on a game 100 miles away... it all adds up to yet another USC victory.