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For the Gators, it was another two weeks before their ship ran aground in a 21-17 loss to LSU that in many ways wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate.
At that point of the season, no one would have put money on either Florida or South Carolina having anything but pride to play for on November 12 in Columbia, but here we are a few weeks later and the Gators (7-2, 5-2 SEC) can win the SEC Eastern Division championship with a win over the Gamecocks combined with a Georgia loss to Auburn or Kentucky. And here is South Carolina (6-3, 4-3 SEC), bowl eligible riding the crest of a remarkable four-game winning streak in which the Gamecocks have trailed at the half all four games. That's the first time in school history South Carolina has won four games in a one season in which the Gamecocks were trailing at the half much less the first time it's been done four weeks in a row.
Florida has made the turnaround to contender for a championship by getting its offensive house in order in the last two weeks. In losses to Alabama and LSU, the Gators were unable to protect quarterback Chris Leak and unable to sustain drives. What has changed for Florida is in the middle of the offensive line where a combination of good health and the lights going on has given a total makeover to the guard position.
Leak was sacked 23 times in the first three games with at least half the sacks coming straight up the middle over the guards. Part of that problem can be attributed to health issues. Jim Tartt missed the first two games of the season with shoulder problems that wouldn't allow him to play a complete game. He's been out the last two games with the lingering effects of an ankle badly sprained against LSU. Tavares Washington missed the equivalent of two and a half games with a sprained elbow. Washington has been healthy the last two games and that has combined with inspired play from Steven Rissler and Drew Miller to give Florida the steadiness it needs flanking center Mike Degory. In the last two games, the Gators have given up only two sacks and both of those came in empty backfield situations when the opponent blitzed one more man that the Gators had blockers.
With the guards playing well, Florida had a solid offensive game against Georgia in which the Gators were able to run the ball on the Bulldogs outstanding defense. Against Vanderbilt last Saturday night, Florida balanced out its running game (42 carries, 191 yards) with the passing game (41 passes for 257 yards) in the best overall offensive performance of the year. The Gators had five drives that consumed at least nine plays and three drives of 12 plays or more. There were two scoring drives alone that ate up more than 16 minutes of clock time.
South Carolina's turnaround can be attributed to its defense. The Gamecocks had a pair of very good offensive games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the first two wins of the current streak, but it is what the defense did in the wins in Knoxville over Tennessee and in Fayetteville over Arkansas that truly has defined the turnaround. The Gamecocks forced a pair of key turnovers and held Tennessee to only 15 points and only 271 total yards. Even though the Gamecocks gave up 219 rushing yards against Arkansas, they blanketed the Razorbacks in the passing game and held them to 10 points.
Contrast those totals to losses against Alabama and Auburn. Alabama, known this year for its brilliant defense and anemic offense, had its best day of the season against South Carolina with 37 points and 489 total yards. Auburn controlled the clock and systematically cut through the Gamecocks defense for 48 points. The damage could have been much worse except that Auburn shut down the offense and ran the ball strictly between the tackles the last 14 minutes of the game.
The change on defense for South Carolina can be attributed to a change in philosophy. In the first seven games of the season, the Gamecocks played in the unorthodox John Thompson style with players moving all over the place up until the snap of the ball. In the last two games, co-coordinator Tyrone Nix has made the defensive calls. He's taken the Gamecocks out of the Thompson style and back to the traditional four-three front with outstanding results.
"Early in the year they were doing a lot of run around defense where guys are just kind of moving around, moving around, moving around, then right before the snap they hit it," said Florida Coach Urban Meyer after Tuesday's practice. "It looks like they've settled down and now they're playing technique defense and not just running around. I think fundamentally they've really improved and now they're a sound, well coached defense."
Meyer has been quite impressed with what the Gamecocks have shown defensively in the road wins over Tennessee and Arkansas.
"They haven't given up a bunch of points at Tennessee and Arkansas," said Meyer. "The last eight quarters very little points and not a lot of yards, either. It's not like people are racking up a lot of yards and then not scoring. I know that Tennessee turned it over a few times and Arkansas ran the ball on them but struggled throwing it on them."
Florida's defense is coming off a very uncharacteristic performance against Vanderbilt, one in which the Gators gave up season highs in points (42) and yardage (419). The Gators dropped from fifth to tenth nationally in the total defense rankings just on what was given up in the Vanderbilt game.
The fear for Saturday in Columbia is Spurrier's ability to exploit a defense throwing the football. He's got the SEC's second rated quarterback in Blake Mitchell (15 touchdowns and only six interceptions) and the league's best deep threat at wide receiver in redshirt freshman Sidney Rice (42 catches, 718 yards, 12 touchdowns).
If Florida could counter the Gamecocks with a healthy defense, and in particular, a healthy secondary, there wouldn't be this much anxiety this week but with Vernell Brown out for the remainder of the regular season with a broken fibula and several other key players hurting, it is a nail biter of a week for the Florida defensive staff.
Reggie Lewis, who played the final three quarters against Vanderbilt, is scheduled to start at corner opposite Dee Webb, who is likely to have the exclusive assignment of Rice any time the Gators play man to man. Lewis got torched a couple of times and had a couple of key holding penalties against Vanderbilt, but he did have the interception in the second overtime that saved the game.
Lewis will be backed up by true freshman Avery Atkins, who will definitely see the field on something other than special teams where he has been a standout.
Kyle Jackson will play a lot at free safety and Reggie Nelson will play some free safety but mostly he'll be in the nickel position. Nelson moving to nickel could be a key since he's second on the team in sacks (4) and all have come on the blitz out of nickel packages. Nelson's ability to pressure the quarterback could help compensate for some of the inexperience at corner with Lewis in the lineup.
"Reggie Lewis will play, Kyle Jackson will play, Avery Atkins will play," said Meyer. "All those are guys who will have to pick up the slack for Vernell Brown. Exactly how hasn't been finalized yet but those guys will be a big part of it."
Having Nelson at nickel to help the pass rush could be huge for Florida since defensive end Ray McDonald continues to struggle since returning from a knee injury and tackle Marcus Thomas is not going full speed in practice after tweaking his back against Vandy.
"Struggling," said Meyer when asked about McDonald, the same answer he gave for Thomas before adding, "Same with Jarvis Herring."
Herring has some bad bruises that have slowed him down. One of Florida's most reliable tacklers, particularly in run support, Herring has been lifted off the special teams because of his injuries. Linebacker Earl Everett has a bruised thigh that has slowed him down but he apparently will be back at full speed Saturday.
OFFENSIVE INJURIES: Tailback DeShawn Wynn is practicing although he is wearing a yellow no-contact jersey. Wynn has played the last several weeks with a chronically sore shoulder. He leads the team with 487 rushing yards good for seven touchdowns and he has 10 catches for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
Wide receiver Dallas Baker, who broke a rib against Vanderbilt, is likely out of the game. He didn't practice for the second straight day Tuesday.
"We're going to find out more later this week but I'd say [his chances to play] pretty slim," said Meyer.