The highlight of South Carolina's season so far was the dominating performance over the Georgia Bulldogs. South Carolina routed Georgia 35-7 in a sellout crowd at Williams-Brice and helped propel the Gamecocks to number three in the nation. A tough road loss at LSU ended the Gamecocks' 10-game winning streak last weekend but doesn't keep the Gamecocks dreams down of winning the SEC East and having a shot at the SEC Championship.
The Gamecocks are looking to rebound this weekend against another top 10 opponent in the Florida Gators. It's a tough matchup for the Gamecocks but South Carolina won the last time in Gainesville behind Marcus Lattimore and are looking to keep the win streak alive against the Florida Gators.
Here's a look at the offense, defense and special teams for South Carolina heading into the Florida game:
Junior quarterback Connor Shaw has really come into his own this season becoming one of the nation's leading quarterbacks in passing efficiency at 160.31. Shaw has become a viable dual-threat at quarterback with his ability to run the zone read offense for the Gamecocks as well as make sound decisions in the passing game.
Right now, he's completing 69.4 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns to just four interceptions. Shaw's best game so far this season was his performance against Missouri. Shaw completed 20 straight passes in that contest and finished with 249 yards through the air and two touchdowns. Shaw won't necessarily beat you with his arm strength but he's such a solid decision-maker at quarterback that he doesn't make that crucial mistake. In this South Carolina offense, he's become a valuable piece of helping the Gamecocks win games.
South Carolina's backup quarterback Dylan Thompson is more of a passing threat than Shaw, especially on the deep ball. If he gets in the game in an emergency, look for the passing game to open up behind his arm. Thompson does get a bit excited initially when entering the game so if he's going to make a mistake, it'll be early in his appearance.
The legs of Shaw and Lattimore are big in this game
The Gamecocks are led by star running back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore has returned to USC this year after suffering a severe knee injury during the middle of last season. He currently has 584 yards on 129 attempts with 10 touchdowns. South Carolina is undefeated when Lattimore runs for 20 carries or more including this year with wins over Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky and Georgia. Lattimore has broken the 100-yard mark over Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Georgia. He appears to be back to full health and will remain a focus of this offense for the rest of the season.
On the depth chart behind Lattimore, the Gamecocks have senior Kenny Miles and freshman Mike Davis. Neither player has had many opportunities this year as Miles only has 27 attempts and Davis only has 13. Davis is the likely more talented of the two with his power running style and excellent vision. However, Miles has the veteran leadership that the Gamecocks need and has proven he can handle the load as he has shown during his freshman season and other times throughout his career.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
South Carolina is without star receiver Alshon Jeffery as he entered the NFL draft after his junior season but there has been a few players to step up in his absence so far this year. Ace Sanders, Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington have all shown that sometimes smaller can be better as all three are 5-foot-9 or shorter but have elusive quickness and speed that can really open up things on offense.
Byrd leads the team in receiving yards with 303 while Ellington and Sanders follow behind him with 265 and 159 respectively. The three receivers have combined for eight receiving touchdowns.
Sanders is versatile and a huge weapon
At tight end, South Carolina has several talented pieces who have stepped up at times this season. Right now, the main contributors are Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson. Anderson in particular is known for his touchdown grabs as he has four touchdowns on eight receptions. He's also the leader in receiving yards at the tight end position. Justice Cunningham is a senior who does all the little things for the Gamecocks. He's made a few tough catches this year including an impressive catch against Vanderbilt where he was hit high but still held on to the ball. He currently has 107 yards on 10 catches.
There's a talented freshman who has seen little time in Jerell Adams. Adams made the tough fourth-down catch at the goal line under two minutes left against LSU that help bring the Gamecocks to within two points. He has been used very little but he's such an athlete at tight end that could become more useful down the line for the Gamecocks.
The Gamecocks offensive line has undergone a few changes this year looking for the right combination. It appears the group they have now has meshed together pretty well. Right now, T.J. Johnson, A.J. Cann, Ronald Patrick, Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell are the starting group. Johnson is the main anchor on the line at center with 40 career starts for South Carolina. Shell and Robinson are your prototypical SEC tackles both over 6-foot-6 and weighing over 330 pounds. Patrick and Cann are both solid performers at the guard position and have started every game there this season.
The backups on the offensive line include a few former starters in Cody Gibson and Mike Matulis. Both have suffered from injuries, or sickness, this season and are currently the backups at the tackle position. They provide some valuable experience off the bench. Will Sport, Kyle Harris and Kaleb Broome are the backups at guard and center for South Carolina but are not quite on the level of their starting counterparts.
Currently, the offensive line has helped the Gamecocks average 4.1 yards per rush this season with an average of 160.4 yards per game. This group has been solid at times this season but consistency is key for South Carolina. This offense goes as far as the offensive line will take them.
Bottom Line on Offense...
The Gamecocks really need Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore to be effective running the football. This offense can really open up with those two running well in the game allowing for some opportunities in the passing for the speedy receivers like Sanders and Byrd. The offensive line is crucial for success in allowing some running lanes for the Gamecocks and the protection of Shaw. If Shaw is able to maneuver outside the pocket, he can become a dangerous threat for any opposing defense.
When you look at the South Carolina defensive line, you see two big names – Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney is on everyone's list this season as a player to watch and he's showcased his tremendous talent through the first seven games of the season. He currently has 31 total tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries. His bookend on the other side is Devin Taylor. His numbers aren't on par with where most people expected they would be but he's still a big-time talent at defensive end with his size, speed and agility. Both Clowney and Taylor bring a lot of pressure off the ends and allow other Gamecocks to take advantage.
Clowney is one of the best anywhere
One Gamecock who has stepped up his play this year is defensive end Chaz Sutton. Sutton has stepped in as a viable backup at defensive end and sees time on the field in the Gamecocks rabbit package, that utilizes three to four defensive ends on the field. Sutton is second on the team in sacks with 4.0 this year.
At the defensive tackle spots, you'll find two solid starters in Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerdieau. Jerideau is one of the strong Gamecocks on the team and is a solid run-stopper in the middle. Quarles is a young sophomore who is starting to come into his own this year. He currently has 30 tackles with 6.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this year. He suffered an injured shoulder against LSU and will likely miss this weekend's game against Florida. Backup J.T. Surratt missed the first three games due to suspension but has returned to the field and played some valuable time in absence of Quarles and Jerideau, who have missed time with an injuries in recent weeks.
If you're looking for an experienced group of Gamecocks, this is it. South Carolina has four players at the linebacker position on the two-deep that are seniors. Shaq Wilson. Reginald Bowens, Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith all provide big hitting ability and senior leadership on defense. Wilson and Bowens are the starters and both are in the top four of total tackles for the Gamecocks. Backup Quin Smith is second on the team with 33 total tackles.
Wilson is one of a group of senior leaders on defense.
Since the Gamecocks utilize a 4-2-5 on defense, there are only two listed linebacker positions on the depth chart.
South Carolina has been known for its defensive backs in recent years and the Gamecocks have another solid group this year. The surprise performer has been cornerback Jimmy Legree. He was inconsistent in his first few years at South Carolina but has really come on this season for South Carolina. He currently leads the team in interceptions with two, including one returned for a touchdown. The other cornerback position has a talented player by the name of Victor Hampton. He's a confident player who is willing to take on the challenge. Akeem Auguste has returned from injury to provide solid depth the past two weeks for the Gamecocks.
Hampton is a former Gator commitment that starts for the Gamecocks
At the safety position, South Carolina may have one of the big hitters in the SEC in D.J. Swearinger. Swearinger has 26 total tackles this year but plays with a swagger that is needed against these tough SEC offenses. Devonte Holloman plays the SPUR position for South Carolina, that allows him to be a hybrid safety/linebacker on this defense. Holloman is great in run support with his big frame and has decent cover skills in pass coverage. Sophomore safety Brison Williams has been consistent this year as a starter and is one of the leading tacklers on the team.
Bottom Line on Defense...
The Gamecocks defense is a big driving force in their success so far this season. The defensive line has been able to bring enough pressure to allow extra help in pass coverage. Clowney has been nearly unstoppable at times for the Gamecocks this year with his relentless speed off the end. South Carolina has performed extremely well in the red zone limiting teams to just five touchdowns on 19 attempts. The strong play will need to continue, starting this weekend, if South Carolina hopes to have a big season.
South Carolina's special teams hasn't been all that superb this year. Kicker Adam Yates has been used very little with just five attempts with three made field goals. He took over as the kickoff specialist and has failed to consistently have touchbacks on kickoffs. Punter Tyler Hull won the job in the preseason for South Carolina and is averaging just 38.4 yards per punt on 30 attempts this year. He's only kicked three punts over 50 yards or more this season.
The real success story on special teams has been punt returner Ace Sanders. Sanders has 18 returns for 313 yards for an average of 17.4 yards per return. He's scored one incredible touchdown on a return this year and has been close on a few others. His improvement in this area has really helped the Gamecocks this year gain valuable field position on the return game as compared to years past where the Gamecocks struggled in this area.
Bottom Line on Special Times South Carolina is unsure what kind of outcome could come if the game was on the line and a field goal was needed for the win. Yates has yet to kick in a pressure situation so it's certainly something worth keeping an eye on. On the flip side, Ace Sanders can turn the game around with one punt return. He's become such a weapon back there and has showcased exactly what it takes to become a dangerous punt returner.
The Real Bottom Line
South Carolina has a tough task at hand this weekend against Florida. They will have to face off against a tough defense great against shutting down the road. The Gamecocks are a bit banged up on both sides of the ball and will have to try and overcome the tough, hostile environment down in Gainesville. Defensively, stopping the run will be the Gamecocks number one priority. Quarterback Jeff Driskell is coming into his own with each game and he's a tough runner to bring down. Containing Driskell and running back Mike Gillislee will be big for the Gamecocks. If South Carolina can do that, and create some offense of their, they have a great shot at winning on Saturday. If they let Florida run all over them like LSU did, it could end up being detrimental to their chances of winning the SEC East.
This is a must win for South Carolina and should expect to see the Gamecocks best this weekend. Whether that is good enough to win, we'll just have to wait and see. At the very least, it should be another big-time SEC matchup that will be entertaining to the college football world.