Gators Vs. Spurrier: All Respect, No Fear

As Florida gets set to tackle the coach that made Gator football great, there's a simple concept the Gators need to appreciate in a much-hyped game that could deliver them the East: respect Steven Orr Spurrier, but do not fear him. Recognize the man's excellence enough to do the gruntwork and preparation needed to sock his Gamecocks in the mouth.


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This columnist made sure to watch all of South Carolina's game against Arkansas last Saturday. And while USC is finding ways to win games each week --- something Urban Meyer's crew is also pulling off --- that's all the Gamecocks are doing: "finding ways to win." In other words, they're pulling games out of their butt they have little business winning.

Spurrier is still doing one of his very best coaching jobs, there's no question about that. But despite such a reality, it's still undeniable that South Carolina has a very weak team. Against both Tennessee and Arkansas, USC played woefully inconsistent football, littering the field with mistakes and showing a pronounced level of vulnerability in the face of a powerful ground game. The Gamecocks needed their opponents to play even worse to prevail the past couple of Saturdays; it's not as though Spurrier's forays into the Villes of Knox and Fayette were successful because of Blake Mitchell's raw excellence.

Please --- let's be clear about this: South Carolina's quarterback finds a few drives per game in which he develops noticeable rhythm on slant and combo routes the Head Ball Coach is so good at drawing up. But most of the time, Mitchell displays Doug Johnson's panicky propensity for fumbling while delivering none of Johnson's formidable arm strength. Beyond the quarterback position, USC lacks muscle up front on both sides of the ball. Arkansas had no credible passing game, yet STILL managed to bloody the Gamecocks on the ground with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. The only good thing about USC's defense is that while bending to an extraordinary degree, it has managed to avoid breaking. Against UT and then Arkansas, the Cocks never allowed the home-run play that could have sunk them in a one-possession battle.

But just because Carolina eked out plug-ugly 16-15 and 14-10 victories should not mean that USC is a resurgent force in the making, a new incarnation of college football and SEC royalty. That was a bad Arkansas team you saw (if you weren't tailgating before the Vandy game) in the Ozarks on Saturday, and it stood just 17 yards from beating Spurrier's team and preventing USC from being bowl eligible. If Arkansas had gotten better spots on some third- and fourth-down plays, and if the Hogs hadn't committed devastating penalties on a number of key occasions, no one would be talking about South Carolina's newfound team personality. Same goes for the Tennessee game, in which USC benefited from a Vol fumble on the Cocks' 1-yard line and a Josh Brown field goal that cleared the crossbar by less than two yards. Yes, the Gamecocks have been opportunistic under Spurrier, but that doesn't mean they've played impressive football. USC's opponents have had to play awful football --- not mediocre or uneven, but truly BAD football --- for the Gamecocks to win razor-close games that didn't get decided until the final minutes. When SEC opponents such as Auburn and Alabama brought their A-games, Spurrier's not-very-talented team predictably crumbled.

So that brings the focus off Spurrier and back to the Florida Gators. If they play the way they're capable of playing, they'll not only win, but win big in Columbia. The key is IF they bring their A-game; that is what's been elusive for Urban Meyer's bunch, which often gets a great game from one side of the ball, but can never seem to get both units playing at peak level on the same Saturday afternoon. It's not a statement of overconfidence to say that UF is much better than USC; in terms of talent and physical prowess, there's no competition between the Gators and Cocks. What COULD sink Florida, however, is a shaky attitude that could get in the way of a quality performance; it all comes back to playing with respect for Spurrier, but not fear.

This calls for a quick note about the time slot of Saturday's game in Williams-Brice Stadium.

While it stinks that Jefferson-Pilot, and not an ESPN-related network, will televise this game in a non-prime time slot, there is one very positive aspect of the 12:30 start time: the Gators won't have a chance to watch the scoreboard or wonder what's happening Between the Hedges. In fact, the time slotting of the three big games on SEC Shakedown Saturday is almost perfect as far as Florida is concerned. The Gators get to take care of business first; then, they get to see Bama potentially place pressure on Auburn for the Tigers' game in Athens. If the Tide can beat LSU, Auburn will enter its game against Georgia knowing it can still win the West. True, an LSU victory would mess up that scenario, but it's still a good thing that Auburn and Georgia take the field last this upcoming Saturday. There won't be any reason for Tommy Tuberville's team to wonder what's happening across the rest of the Southeast, and the visibility that comes with a game played under the lights will ensure that Auburn plays with juice.

So as Urban Meyer prepares his team to take on Spurrier's Gamecocks, the Gators have fewer reasons for being distracted. They'll get to watch the games in Tuscaloosa and Athens when their work is done, so they won't need to worry about anything other than winning in Columbia. But when The Boys of Old Florida take to the field, they will admittedly face a number of emotional challenges. And the biggest challenge of all is to recognize the difference between respect and fear. If Florida plays like another team called USC --- you know, the one in Los Angeles that has institutionally and systemically ingrained expectations of nothing less than top-flight performance --- the Gators will drub the USC of the SEC, and remind America just how little talent exists in Columbia right now.

Folks, Spurrier will coach a fine game this Saturday --- there's no reason to think otherwise --- but it has to be emphasized that he doesn't have the horses to run with Florida. The Head Ball Coach can scheme all he wants, but if Meyer's boys decide to put their foot down (finally, once and for all), nothing South Carolina does will matter. It will remind Gator fans of the time four years ago when a lot of Florida fans were peeing in their pants over the proposition of ol' Lou Holtz, layin' in the weeds and trying to ambush Spurrier's Gators in Columbia.

Well, after Rex Grossman, Earnest Graham and Company scored on each of their first six possessions, in one of the better displays of a season that overflowed with excellence (but also a lot of bad luck), no one was worried about a less-talented Gamecock team ambushing Florida. Fifty-four points later, the Gators silenced USC with a thorough beatdown, 54-17.

Saturday, as Spurrier stands on the other sideline, Florida can certainly register another 37-point win if it finally decides to play like an elite program. Respecting the Head Ball Coach enough to destroy him is the simple mental mindset the Gators need to bring to the ballpark. Just because Dave Neal, and not Ron Franklin or Verne Lundquist, is calling the game doesn't mean Florida has to soft-pedal it. It's a Jefferson-Pilot time slot, but it might as well be a BCS game for Florida. After all, Atlanta is on the line.

Steve Spurrier has delivered the Gators many times to the city that Sherman burned. On Saturday, the Gators --- with their attitude, more than anything else --- can prevent Spurrier from denying Florida another trip to Peachtree Street.


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