The Florida Gators are back atop the SEC East, but after a six-year absence they feel a bit like a fish out of water.
UF slogged through a 9-7 win over lowly Vanderbilt last week, and first-year coach Jim McElwain didn’t think his team “answered the bell.”
“We’re truly in uncharted waters,” McElwain said, alluding to Florida’s unanticipated accomplishments and revised expectations.
“The good thing is some of us have been in these waters, which helps. With that being said, there’s certain things you go about from the psychological standpoint to be able to handle the unchartered waters. Part of that is you can’t be afraid. You can’t be afraid.
“Once you’re afraid, if you have a fear of failure you’re going to go into a cocoon and never come out. A lot of problems that a lot of people have is that once the fear of the unknown makes you horrible. Makes you worthless. The excitement and enjoyment of the journey moving forward is what we’re trying to explain. We will see.”
The 11th-ranked Gators nearly suffered a letdown against Vandy, so they must show up ready to play against a South Carolina team with little to lose.
The Gamecocks are desperate for a marquee victory under interim coach Shawn Elliott. After close calls against Texas A&M and Tennessee, they seem primed for an upset — especially with their bowl eligibility hanging by a thread.
“They’ve been in all these games,” McElwain said, also noting that Florida has dropped four of five against South Carolina. “I don’t want to be that guy that lets them get over the hump.”
Since taking over for Steve Spurrier, Elliott has injected life into the Gamecocks, instilling a more run-heavy attack behind bruising back Brandon Wilds. The senior has rushed for 326 yards and two touchdowns in the past three games and could face a skeleton crew up front. The Gators will be without starting defensive tackle Joey Ivie, while rotational lineman Jordan Sherit will miss the first half (targeting suspension) and star tackle Jon Bullard is “highly questionable” with an arm injury.
“They’re running up and down the field on people,” McElwain said. “They’re not afraid to throw a double-reverse pass, double reverse, triple reverse, fake option, pitch it out to here. You know, it’s kind of fun to watch actually.”
No one is saying the same thing about Florida’s offense. While the Gators have clinched a spot in the SEC Championship Game, their attack continues to search for answers. Their inexperienced offensive line has struggled with consistency, and quarterback Treon Harris has played hot and cold all season. UF turned the ball over a season-high four times against Vandy.
McElwain called last Saturday’s effort “embarrassing” and tailback Kelvin Taylor concurred.
“We know we’re way better than that,” the junior said. “It just wasn’t clicking for us. … We just have to keep working at it.”
South Carolina could be what cures Florida’s offensive ills, as the Gamecocks rank 91st in total defense and 72nd in scoring defense.
They have held conference opponents under 24 points just once this season.
Saturday: No. 11 Florida at South Carolina
Kickoff: Noon; Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, South Carolina.
TV/radio: ESPN; WINZ 940.
Favorite: Florida by 7 1/2.
Records: Florida 8-1 (6-1 SEC); South Carolina 3-6 (1-6 SEC).
Series: Florida leads 24-8-3.
Florida injuries: Questionable — LB Alex Anzalone (shoulder); DL Khairi Clark (undisclosed). Doubtful — DL Jonathan Bullard (arm). Out — DL Thomas Holley (undisclosed); DL Joey Ivie (undisclosed); K Jorge Powell (knee).
South Carolina injuries: Questionable — DB Al Harris Jr. (shoulder); WR D.J. Neal (hip); DL Dante Sawyer (shoulder); LB Mike Matulis (ribs); LB Skai Moore (hip); DB Antoine Wilder (leg); WR Deebo Samuel (hamstring); DB Rico McWilliams (concussion); DL Taylor Stallworth (chest). Out — LB Sherrod Pittman (leg); C Cody Waldrop (ankle); WR Jerad Washington (leg); WR Shaq Davidson (knee); OL Brock Stadnik (undisclosed).