GAINESVILLE -- For a game in mid-October, the stakes couldn’t be much higher when Florida and South Carolina meet on Saturday.
On the strength of a 6-0 start and a No. 2 ranking in the BCS standings, the talk is that the Gators (6-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) are officially “back.” But to meet their goal of getting back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, they must navigate a treacherous remaining schedule, starting with the Gamecocks, who accomplished that goal when they won the East on Florida’s field in November 2010.
“That’s a feeling you’ll never forget,” UF safety Josh Evans said. “It’s definitely revenge, man. … Just to get this win, it would mean a lot to this team and definitely the roll we’re on this year trying to stay undefeated.”
If Florida can’t beat South Carolina at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Georgia the following week, its chances of reaching Atlanta become slim at best.
And the No. 7 Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1), fresh off a road loss to LSU, have their postseason lives on the line in Steve Spurrier’s fourth return trip to the stadium he helped name. Spurrier built his legacy at Florida first as a player, then as the first coach to bring a national title to Gainesville. At South Carolina, he has turned a perennial pushover into a national contender, and a win Saturday would do wonders to cement that legacy.
“Hopefully, our guys will realize we are in one of the biggest games in our lives,” Spurrier said Thursday.
To win, both teams will employ similar strategies. Florida and South Carolina fit the current mold of SEC success: Run the football, stop the run, and make plays on special teams.
At the forefront of their offense, the Gators have running back Mike Gillislee (615 yards, seven touchdowns) and mobile quarterback Jeff Driskel (326 rushing yards, four touchdowns). The Gamecocks have arguably the SEC’s best back in Marcus Lattimore (584 yards, 10 touchdowns) and mobile quarterback Connor Shaw (280 rushing yards, one touchdown).
On defense, the teams are tied for fifth nationally in points allowed at 12.3 per game and both allow just 4.4 yards per play on average.
Both teams have made a living grinding out games and forcing the other team to quit in the fourth quarter. And both teams might have issues with that Saturday because of injuries.
Or maybe not, as Spurrier and Florida coach Will Muschamp have been engaged in a chess match all week, withholding certain injury information and publicizing others, hoping to catch the other off guard.
At the beginning of the week, Muschamp said injured left tackle Xavier Nixon (concussion), left guard James Wilson (eye) and center Jonotthan Harrison (elbow) — all key pieces — would return to practice as late as Tuesday and be probable for Saturday. Nixon did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday and his availability is in doubt.
“When we’re in training camp, I don’t mind telling you about the injuries,” Muschamp said in March. “Now, when we get into a game-week situation, I’m not going to do anything to help our opponent.”
On the other side, Spurrier on Monday said a “flu bug” was circulating, putting the status of several key players in doubt. Then star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was ailing from a “foot injury.” On Thursday, Spurrier said Lattimore (hip) is not going to start the game but will travel with the team.
Kirk Herbstreit, an analyst for ESPN’s College GameDay, which will be on hand Saturday, said in an interview Friday that he would be completely surprised if Lattimore doesn’t play.
“If you know Steve Spurrier,” Herbstreit said, “he’ll be out there.”