GAINESVILLE -- No. 11 South Carolina has won six of its past seven games, is fresh off an idle date and has two of the top players — tailback Mike Davis and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — in the Southeastern Conference.
Meanwhile, Florida limps into Columbia down to its fourth- and fifth-string offensive tackles and could start a redshirt freshman at quarterback taking his first collegiate snap.
This could get ugly fast.
Florida (4-5, 3-4 SEC) and South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) square off in prime time Saturday night at 7 in a battle of the ascending versus the fading.
The Gators, in the midst of their second four-game losing streak in three seasons, must pull off at least one upset — over No. 11 USC or No. 2 FSU — to avoid their first losing season since 1979.
Embattled coach Will Muschamp, who received a public vote of confidence from the UF administration on Wednesday, called his team “fragile” this week and cited a pervasive “woe-is-me” mentality after last Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt.
“We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to find ways to put our guys in better position, better situations to overcome that,” he said. “The psychological battle of getting our guys in the right situations to be successful. That’s our job as coaches.”
Added redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy: “We have to make sure that we stay on top of each other and make sure nobody gives up on the season because we still have three games. Things can get a lot worse if we do that stuff. We have to keep things going and try to find a way to pull two out of these next three so we can make a bowl game.”
Besieged by an alarming number of season-ending injuries (10), some players’ confidence and attitudes have waned, and the situation could snowball against a fearsome Gamecocks team as Murphy appears unlikely to start because of a severe shoulder sprain.
Murphy didn’t practice all week and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg is in line to make his first-career collegiate appearance if Murphy is unable to play.
Mornhinweg faces a daunting task, as South Carolina boasts one of the nation’s top defensive lines — led by a future top-five NFL Draft pick.
Florida’s makeshift and scrambled offensive line must contain Clowney and the rest of the Gamecocks’ disruptive front, which ranks third in the SEC in tackles for loss (67).
“Clowney is a million-dollar player,’’ left tackle Max Garcia said. “He’s going to be picked in the first round. You can’t deny that fact. He’s a playmaker. He’s disruptive. But we’re going to do whatever we have to do to minimize his plays.’’
Garcia and junior college transfer Trenton Brown will make just their second starts this season at left and right tackle, respectively — a frightening proposition in a matchup against Clowney and the underrated Kelcy Quarles (a team-leading seven sacks).
“They have an outstanding front seven,” Muschamp said. “Quarles is a really good player. He’s a guy that’s very disruptive inside. [Chaz] Sutton has done a nice job for them. They create a lot of one-on-one’s because of Jadeveon.”