TSX: Florida State vs. South Carolina
KICKOFF: Friday, 7:30 ET
SITE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
SERIES: Florida State leads 15-3 (last meeting, 1991, Florida Stare 38-10)
RECORDS: South Carolina 9-4, Florida State 9-4
POLLS: South Carolina (19 AP, 20 USA Today), Florida State (23 AP, 23 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Florida State 28-20
KEYS TO THE GAME:
-- For South Carolina: This is probably one of the closest teams since coach Steve Spurrier has been in charge. The players credit those relationships with helping them rebound quickly after bad losses.
With freshman RB Marcus Lattimore getting most of the attempts, the South Carolina running game has been in good hands this season. He has rushed for 1,198 yards and 17 touchdowns in 12 games. He has not topped the 100-yard mark or scored a touchdown in his last two encounters, however. The offensive line has been solid in front of him thanks to the work of first-year coach Shawn Elliott. South Carolina faces a Florida State team that allows 127 yards per game on the ground, but only 11 touchdowns.
Although there have been some rough patches, QB Stephen Garcia has finally proven to be the leader Spurrier wants. He has completed 205 of 315 passes for 2,816 yards and 20 touchdowns while suffering 11 interceptions. WR Alshon Jeffery, who has already made some All-America teams, remains the top target with 79 catches for 1,387 yards and nine touchdowns. WR Tori Gurley follows with 42 receptions for 416 yards and four scores. They are going against a Seminoles defense that struggles guarding against the pass, allowing 221 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The Gamecocks have been strong against the run throughout the season. They lead the SEC in run defense, giving up only 104.3 yards per game. They face a challenge against Florida State. The Seminoles, using several backs, are averaging 167 yards per game on the ground.
After appearing to have their problems solved, the Gamecocks regressed in the SEC Championship game against Auburn, giving up 351 yards and four touchdowns through the air. While a lot of it was poor coverage, the team was unable to get much of a pass rush against quarterback Cam Newton. Florida State's Christian Ponder poses some of the same problems if he recovers from an arm injury that has hampered him most of the season.
South Carolina has not returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown for years. The Gamecocks have only allowed one touchdown on a special teams return this season, which came on the opening kickoff against Florida. Spencer Lanning has done an excellent job handling both the placekicking and punting duties.
-- For Florida State: Both teams are coming off disappointing losses in their conference championship games. That will be an emotional factor. Whichever team can sell this game the best to players and make it seem like it really matters will likely emerge with the win.
The Seminoles had their worst rushing performance in the ACC title game, gaining only 53 yards against Virginia Tech. The Seminoles went into the game fourth in the ACC in rushing offensive, averaging 177.7 yards. Part of the problem was injuries to top backs Jermaine Thomas, who didn't play, and Ty Jones, was hampered. But there is direct correlation in games this season between Florida State's running success and its overall performance.
Whether it's Christian Ponder or E.J. Manuel at quarterback, the Seminoles should feel confident. Manuel passed for 288 yards and one touchdown against the Hokies, and he has plenty of experience. WR Bert Reed led the Seminoles with 56 receptions with WR Taiwan Easterling next with 41. WR Willie Haulstead led FSU in touchdown catches with six.
Overall this season, the Seminoles have been effective in stopping opponents' rushing attacks. It's certainly been a big improvement from the past two seasons. This group will be tested by South Carolina's bullish tailback, Marcus Lattimore, who has scored 17 regular-season touchdowns and rushed for nearly 1,200 yards.
As they showed against Virginia Tech, the Seminoles have left too many wide receivers wide open after failing to produce pressure with their front line. Opponents have exploited the Seminoles' youthful cornerbacks and safeties, who have been through a lot of trial-and-error this season.
The Seminoles won't yield to anyone in the kicking game. PK Dustin Hopkins has enjoyed a stellar season, aside from missing a field goal against North Carolina. P Shawn Powell is one of the better punters in the country. PR Greg Reid has forced teams to kick away from him or angle punts to avoid giving him the center of the field to get into space.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
RB Marcus Lattimore -- Lattimore has not scored a touchdown on rushed for 100 yards in his last two games. He played well against Auburn, however, rushing for 84 yards on 16 carries and catching three passes for 36 yards.
QB Stephen Garcia -- Garcia took a step backwards in the SEC title game, throwing two interceptions, with one being return for a touchdown. The good thing is the redshirt junior has normally rebounded with outstanding performances following a bad one.
CB Stephon Gilmore -- Gilmore, a sophomore, had probably his worst game at South Carolina. Considered one of the top corners in the SEC, he was burned several times by Auburn receivers, and he needs to get back on his game against Florida State.
TB Ty Jones -- Despite missing three games this season, Jones has gained a single season career-high 510 yards on 83 carries. He scored a career-high three touchdowns in the ACC championship game, though he only had 24 carries. He is averaging a robust 6.4 yards per carry.
WR Bert Reed -- Reed is on course to become one of Florida State's all-time leaders in receptions. With a team-leading 53 receptions, the Panama City, Fla., native pushed his career total to 136 catches, which is seventh on the Seminoles' all-time list.
QB E.J. Manuel -- If Christian Ponder can't play after his elbow surgeries, Manuel has proven he can be an effective backup. He had solid performances in relief this season against Clemson and Virginia Tech. Manuel was the quarterback in last year's Gator Bowl victory against West Virginia.
CB C.C. Whitlock (knee, probable).
TB Jermaine Thomas (knee, questionable), TB Ty Jones (ankle, probable), QB Christian Ponder (elbow, questionable).
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