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Friday October 19, 201210 Things to Watch: Florida vs. South Carolina

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you are a college football fan and you grew up in SEC country, then Saturday's Florida-South Carolina showdown is the kind of game you wake up for on Saturdays in the fall.

Both teams are ranked in the top 10. There are huge SEC East implications on the line. Oh, and Steve Spurrier comes back to The Swamp.

There are storylines galore for this one.

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit was raised in Big Ten territory and played for Ohio State, but he knows a good game when he sees one.

"It’s always fun when Steve Spurrier goes back to Gainesville to coach the South Carolina team and try to upset the Florida Gators,’’ Herbstreit said to open a TV segment this week. "[The Gators] have really positioned themselves to have a legitimate shot to get to Atlanta."

They have indeed. The Gamecocks can still get there too with a win on Saturday.

With the stage set, let's take a look at 10 things to watch on Saturday:

ELAM'S IMPACT

Gators safety Matt Elam was everywhere in Florida's win over LSU two weeks ago, registering seven tackles and forcing a game-changing fumble in the second half.

Elam has received some first-team All-American accolades of late and the Gators hope he plays like one on Saturday. South Carolina's mobile quarterback Connor Shaw and bulldozing tailback Marcus Lattimore makes Elam's presence more important than usual.

Elam must keep a close eye on Shaw at all times, especially when the junior quarterback begins to scramble. Elam's ability to close fast will be crucial on Shaw's designed runs and scrambles.

"He really converts a lot on third down the way he runs," Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “Their whole season, the guy has really made plays. He’s kind of one of those guys who continually find ways to get the job done."

Meanwhile, when Shaw doesn't have the ball, he often hands off to Lattimore, the 2010 SEC Freshman of the Year who ran for 212 yards on a school-record 40 carries in South Carolina's last visit to The Swamp.

Elam is physical enough to play inside the box and slow down Lattimore if needed. Elam's decision-making on Shaw's scrambles will be key to how well the Gators defend the pass.

LATTIMORE'S HEALTH

The biggest injury news this week for either team concerned Lattimore, who did not practice mid-week due to lingering effects from the deep hip bruise he suffered in last week's loss at LSU.

Lattimore traveled with the team to Florida but Spurrier said that he is unlikely to start. If not, that assignment goes to senior Kenny Miles, who has 100 yards on 27 carries.

The 5-foot-9, 193-pound Miles offers a much different look than the 6-0, 218-pound Lattimore. Regardless of who starts, the Gators will need to do a better job against the Gamecocks' rushing attack.

With Lattimore out last season due to a knee injury, freshman Brandon Wilds rushed for 120 yards on 29 carries. Wilds has not played this season due to an ankle injury.

BATTLE UP FRONT

South Carolina's defensive line is deep and talented in much the same way as LSU's. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is one of the game's elite pass rushers and fellow defensive end Devin Taylor is a 6-8, 267-pound load.

South Carolina is banged up on the interior line, which could help Gators running back Mike Gillislee when he crosses the line in search of running room. Gamecocks defensive tackles Kelcy Quarles (6-4, 286) and Byron Jerideau (6-1, 316) are both less than 100 percent physically.

Of course Florida's offensive line has spent its fair share of time in the training room lately. Senior left guard James Wilson missed the Vanderbilt game with an eye injury and left tackle Xavier Nixon and center Jon Harrison both left the game due to injuries.

The matchup to watch is Clowney, who has 14 1/2 career sacks in 20 games, against either Nixon or true freshman D.J. Humphries.

FLORIDA'S PASSING GAME

You probably know by now that the Gators have passed for less than 100 yards in each of the last two games.

That hasn't happened since 1989 -- or before Gators sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel was born. However, Driskel is contributing in other ways.

He rushed for 177 yards and three touchdowns last week at Vanderbilt and has done well in protecting the football. The Gators won the last two games despite the modest numbers in the passing game.

While they would like to throw for more yards Saturday, if they win, they won't have any complaints said offensive coordinator Brent Pease.

TURNOVER TIME

The Gators have improved in several areas but perhaps none more than in turnover margin. Florida enters a plus-7 and has committed only four turnovers in six games.

In Florida coach Will Muschamp's first season he said it was "a minor miracle" the Gators finished with a winning record considering their minus-12 turnover margin.

Driskel has thrown only one interception and the defense is playing a more physical brand of football than a year ago.

"We've tried to emphasize it everywhere I've been," Muschamp said. "We certainly didn't do a good job last year. We're doing a little better job this year. We've just got to continue to emphasize it. We talk about it every day, with the importance of ball security offensively and getting the ball out on defense."

The Gators have forced 11 turnovers in six games, just three shy of last year's total, the fewest in a single season since the school began keeping fumble stats in 1950.

SHAW'S EFFECTIVENESS

Shaw is a dual-threat quarterback like Driskel but without Driskel's size and speed. Still, he is a dangerous weapon that has that ability you can't coach -- he keeps plays alive when their obituary is already written.

Shaw is also a proven passer. He has thrown for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks feature a talented set of wide receivers when Shaw does look to throw in Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington.

Ellington has 17 catches and is averaging 15.6 yards per reception. While Florida cornerbacks Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson have played well, they can't let up when they look back and see Shaw scrambling.

"They’ve certainly got some speed outside at receiver,’’ Quinn said. “That’s one of the things that jump out at you on tape. They have a really physical tight end [Justice Cunningham] who can block on the line."

MUSCHAMP VERSUS SPURRIER

One made his name as a top-flight SEC defensive coordinator. The other is a Gators icon that revolutionized SEC offenses in the 1990s.

It will be interesting to watch what kind of plan each comes up with to counterattack the other. While Spurrier doesn't dip into his bag of tricks as often as he did when he was at Florida, you can bet he still keeps some unique ball plays tucked under his visor.

Meanwhile, Muschamp and his staff have proven they are masters of the halftime adjustment and have the Gators believing in what they are selling.

It's also an opportunity for Muschamp to earn his latest "biggest win" as Florida's head coach.

SPECIAL TEAMS

If this sounds like a broken record, well, that's because the Gators' special teams continue to give Florida an advantage.

Two weeks ago against LSU it was punter Kyle Christy continuously flipping the field. A week ago at Vanderbilt kicker Caleb Sturgis booted three field goals and Andre Debose returned a kickoff 60 yards right when it appeared the Commodores had seized momentum.

Florida also pulled off a fake punt that Solomon Patton gained 54 yards on.

The Christy-Sturgis combo is arguably the nation's top punter-kicker tandem, and every time Debose touches the ball on a return, something special can happen. One way for the Gators to walk off the field Saturday with a special win is to get contributions from their special teams.

A SPECIAL GAME DAY

When the Gators upset No. 4 LSU two weeks ago, The Swamp came alive like we haven't seen probably since Tim Tebow's final game in 2009.

Afterward, Muschamp and several players commented about how much a difference the fans made in the game. There should be a similar atmosphere on Saturday.

With ESPN's "College GameDay" in town, SEC East implications on the line, the Head Ball Coach on the opposing sideline and the game on national TV, what else can you ask for if you love college football?

JENKINS AND EASLEY

Florida's improved depth has paid off nicely. True freshman Antonio Morrison and sophomore Michael Taylor have filled in admirably for injured starting linebacker Jelani Jenkins.

Meanwhile, true freshman Dante Fowler Jr. has held his own in the absence of junior starting defensive end Dominique Easley.

Jenkins (hamstring) and Easley (knee) both practiced this week and are expected to play according to Muschamp. With Shaw and Lattimore to stop, the more healthy players the better for Florida’s defense.

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GATORS GAMEBOX

No. 3 Florida (6-0, 5-0 in SEC) vs. No. 9 South Carolina (6-1, 4-1)

Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium)

TV: CBS -- Verne Lundquist (play-by-play); Gary Danielson (analyst); Tracy Wolfson (sideline)

Internet: CBSSports.com live stream

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (click here for affiliates); GatorVision audio; XM 91; Sirius 91

Game notes: FloridaSouth Carolina

Bottom line: The winner takes over the driver's seat in the SEC East race. The Gators can also keep alive their bid to play for the national title with a win likely to keep them at No. 2 in the BCS standings.

 

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