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Game of the Week Preview: Florida at South Carolina

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the Gamecocks are a factor in the SEC; especially if they win this weekend.

Overview -- Saturday's contest got a whole lot more interesting and important after South Carolina's victory over Georgia in Athens. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the Gamecocks are a factor in the SEC; especially if they win this weekend. Consecutive triumphs over the preseason division favorites would give South Carolina invaluable head-to-head tiebreakers in the standings. Florida, in the eyes of some, has emerged as the top team in the SEC East. After beating Auburn, the Gators impressed in a losing effort against LSU in Death Valley. This matchup, ahead of Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville, stands as a pivotal fixture in terms of the pecking order. Quarterbacks Kyle Trask and Ryan Hilinski, both of whom entered the starting lineup due to injury earlier in the season, have done good work in rallying their respective teams. Inclimate weather may result in sloppy conditions in Columbia, with heavy rain and wind in the forecast. Whatever happens, the impact in the standings will be significant.

Why to Watch -- This is an interesting contrast of styles and stories. Florida, who has peaked as high as seventh in the national polls, has spent the entire season in the spotlight. After ten wins in Dan Mullen's debut, expectations were quite high entering the year. It's been an up-and-down season for South Carolina, one where the dynamic changed completely after last Saturday's upset of 5th-ranked Georgia. The Gamecocks now have notable momentum entering the stretch run of their schedule. Boasting one of the nation's premier groups of both wide receivers and defensive backs, the Gators' strengths, especially with key injuries along the defensive front, are largely on the perimeter. South Carolina's revitalization has been led by its front seven, with a talented defensive line setting the tone for recent success. These are two confident, hungry football teams and that energy should be on clear display in Williams-Brice Stadium.

Keys for Florida
1. Control the Line of Scrimmage Offensively --
In some ways, Florida's offensive line had a statement performance against LSU. The Gators compiled 457 total yards, their season-high against an FBS opponent. Florida's front five held its own against one of the most talented defenses in the SEC. More of the same is needed. South Carolina's defensive front was able to win in the trenches against Georgia's dominant line last weekend; players like tackle Javon Kinlaw and end D.J. Wonnum have been two of the most disruptive linemen in the league. The unit, boasting just one senior starter, will be leaned on this road game, a contest which could be played in bad weather. Kinlaw, who leads the league with five sacks, Wonnum and Aaron Sterling have combined for 16.5 tackles for loss, so the pressure will be Stone Forsythe and Jean Delance, along with veteran center Nick Buchanan, to be fundamentally sound and aggressive. In recent wins, the Gamecocks have dictated tempo with dynamic defensive line play. The starting point, for the Gators, is mitigating the impact of that group. Florida can and should also look to limit South Carolina's effectiveness at the line of scrimmage with play-calling, but blockers will have to win individual battles as well. The spotlight will be on.   

2. Replicate the Rush -- Florida is tied for fifth nationally with 26 sacks, a pressure they must find a way to maintain if the Gators are without star edge playmakers Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, both of whom will reportedly be game-time decisions with injuries. Greenard, with four sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, has been one of the nation's premier defenders and the tone-setter for Gators' attacking scheme. Coordinator Todd Grantham will have to find ways to pressure the offensive backfield, possibly taking more risks with creative blitzes. Slot corner Trey Dean was effective in that capacity in the Miami game. Linebacker Jeremiah Moon could move into a more prominent playmaking role and is capable of wrecking havoc behind the line of scrimmage. His play, attacking the bookends of the South Carolina offensive line, will be critical. A big game from veteran tackle Adam Shuler along the interior would also go a long way. Much of Florida's defensive success this fall has come by way of constant pressure at the point of attack; if without big names off the edge, the Gators still have to maintain the status quo.

3. Find Kyle Pitts -- The sophomore tight end is emerging as one of the top players at his position in all of college football. Already, Pitts has 30 receptions for 362 yards, both number one in the league amongst tight ends, and three touchdowns. He is fresh off the best game of his young career, 100-yard game number one at LSU. Clearly, Pitts has developed a nice relationship with quarterback Kyle Trask as he has 25 catches over the past five games. Pitts is dynamic downfield in that he is a unique matchup problem because of his speed and athleticism and the prototypical fluidity of his route-running. His presence draws constant defensive attention, prompts hesitation for linebackers and safeties in run defense and opens up coverages for Florida's impressive rotation of perimeter playmakers. In recent weeks, Pitts has become an offensive x-factor for the Gators, a catalyst for overall efficiency. Getting him involved early would help Trask settle in, put immediate pressure on South Carolina's defense and open up opportunities for others. 

Keys for South Carolina
1. Dominate and Disrupt --
Active, impactful and timely defensive play has keyed South Carolina's recent run. Having allowed just 24 points the past two weeks, the Gamecocks have one of the hottest units in the country. South Carolina, at home, needs to set the tone Saturday afternoon with its defense. This is a group that will take the field with conviction, trusting their abilities and riding a significant wave of momentum. The energy and intensity should be in place. The starting point, for the Gamecocks, has and needs to continue to be their defensive line. Tackle Javon Kinlaw, the SEC's sack leader, is the leader. Demanding constant double teams and still finding his way into the offensive backfield, Kinlaw's presence only makes D.J. Wonnum that much more effective off the edge. Ernest Jones has developed into a difference-maker in the middle of the field, relevant in both run defense and pass coverage. The star of the upset over Georgia was cornerback Israel Mukuaru, who recorded three interceptions. More ball-hawking play in the secondary would be the exclamation point on another defensive statement.

2. Establish the Run -- For the first time since 2011, South Carolina ranks in the top five in the SEC in rushing offense. The Gamecocks have been very good on the ground, slotting second in the league with 5.69 team yards per carry, a testament to physical front line play and the production of an impressive rotation of running backs. Continued production between the tackles would accomplish a number of different things; help South Carolina control the tempo of the game, slow down Florida's defensive rush and limit the potential number of hits taken by quarterback Ryan Hilinksi, who is dealing with an injured knee. Given the likelihood of bad weather, the offensive gameplan may be even more centered on the rushing game. There will be opportunities for Rico Dowdle and Tavien Feaster to carry the offensive load. Look for a big game from veteran center Donell Stanley, a strong blocker who excels in run blocking. A focus on the ground might open up play-action chances against the Gators' talented defensive backs.

3. Protect the Football -- The Georgia game, with South Carolina forcing four turnovers in the win, was a perfect example of the importance of possession. Big defensive plays made by the Gamecocks were the key to victory. Against an aggressive Florida unit, South Carolina simply has to be aware and, at times, cautious. The Gators rank second nationally and lead all of Power Five football with 17 forced turnovers, tying for second in the country with 12 interceptions. True freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski has done a good job of avoiding critical mistakes this season, a trend that needs to be a priority on Saturday. Ball security is important in any big game; against this Florida defense, it's a must. Especially given potential wet conditions. One week after a plus-four performance in the game's most important statistical category, turnover margin, the Gamecocks would likely put themselves in a great position for another win with a similar performance. 

Position Advantages
Quarterback:
Florida -- Both Kyle Trask and Ryan Hilinksi have impressed; Trask, however, currently ranks third in the SEC in passer rating behind Heisman Trophy candidates Tua Tagovailoa from Alabama and Joe Burrow of LSU. He is completed over 68% of his passes and has seven touchdowns and one interception over the past three games. Trask's 310 passing yards in Baton Rouge were a career-high.

Running Back: South Carolina -- The production on the ground, for South Carolina, is notable, with Rico Dowdle leading the way with 449 yards and four touchdowns. Lamical Perine has come through with big plays when Florida has needed them. Both the Gamecocks and Gators have good depth in the backfield.

Pass-Catchers: Florida -- There aren't many teams in the country with the sheer number of perimeter playmakers as Florida. From wide receiver Van Jefferson to tight end Kyle Pitts, the Gators have multiple options in the passing game. South Carolina has a true number one out wide in Bryan Edwards.

Offensive Line: South Carolina -- The first-half of the season has seen South Carolina be quite productive on the ground. At 5.69 yards per carry as a team, the Gamecocks rank 8th nationally in rushing proficiency. Florida's front played well at LSU. Both units are looking to improve in pass protection.

Defensive Line: South Carolina -- With the likes of Javon Kinlaw on the inside and D.J. Wonnum on the outside, South Carolina's front is one of the most complete lines in the game. It has the potential to take over games. So, too, does Florida's unit, though the Gators might be shorthanded.

Linebackers: Florida -- It's difficult to project, given the uncertain status of superstar Jon Greenard. If he goes, Greenard is a major focal point. Relatively quietly, David Reese has been strong for Florida. He leads the SEC with 53 total tackles. South Carolina's Ernest Jones is tied for second with 50 stops.

Secondary: Florida -- Simply put, Florida is as good as it gets in the defensive backfield. Led by cornerback C.J. Henderson, the Gators are athletic and deep at both cornerback and safety. There are playmakers everywhere. What a performance it was last weekend by South Carolina's Israel Mukuamu.

Special Teams: Florida -- The two units are comparable. Evan McPherson has been one of the SEC's top kickers, while both Florida's Tommy Townsend and South Carolina's Joseph Charlton have both been very effective in the punting game. What the Gators have done in coverage has been impressive.

Coaching: Florida -- Dan Mullen has a notable track record of having his teams ready to play in big games and last week, even in a losing effort at LSU, was no different. He remains one of the best in the business. Will Muschamp got a signature victory in Athens and has significant momentum for the remainder of the year.

Intangibles: South Carolina -- Though Florida has been the better, more consistent team, South Carolina's season was recently reset in Athens. The Gamecocks have a new energy and direction and will undoubtedly be ready for Saturday's encore opportunity. Williams-Brice Stadium, one of the loudest venues in the country, should be rocking.   

Players to Watch
Florida:
Kyle Trask, QB -- As the LSU game showed, Trask's role has expanded. He isn't just asked to manage games for Florida, he can win them. Trask threw for over 300 yards for the first time in his career in Baton Rouge, proving to be poised and resilient on the big stage. For a team with championship expectations, Trask has shown that he can lead the team. The Gators are comfortable with him in key moments.

South Carolina: Javon Kinlaw, DT -- From the inside of the defensive line, Kinlaw leads the SEC in sacks with five. He has been a consistent force in the trenches, demanding double teams and creating one-on-one opportunities for others. Kinlaw, literally and figuratively, is the starting point for a redhot South Carolina defense. He was one of the leaders in the Gamecocks' win at Georgia. 

Final Thoughts
The framework around this matchup is fascinating. For a game that didn't necessarily have much hype mere weeks ago, this pairing now has the feel of a game with big-time implications. And it does. Inclimate weather could force a game that was already going to be defense-oriented in even more of that direction. Factors like special teams, turnovers and one or two big offensive plays might prove to be the difference. In the end, Florida is the more consistent, and less volatile, side. The Gators win a close, hard-fought contest with a very deliberate pace of play. Florida -- 23, South Carolina -- 16

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports