Sapakoff: Gamecocks, unable to match Florida speed and depth, find 2016 ceiling
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Jake Bentley on South Carolina’s first snap Saturday calmly changed a play call that resulted in an 8-yard Rico Dowdle run. The freshman appearing in his fourth college football game also led a valiant fourth-quarter rally attempt.
Great. The Gamecocks have a capable quarterback, the key ingredient to SEC success. A maligned program will clinch bowl-eligibility next week with a home win over Western Carolina.
But South Carolina in its 20-7 loss to Florida at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field got an up-close, SEC East look at exactly what it will take to seriously challenge for a division title.
Depth with more speed.
Gamecocks were running yards behind Florida players on offense and punt coverage.
Bentley had trouble finding open receivers while the Gators piled up coverage sacks.
Only the South Carolina band was able to match the speed of its SEC rival.
Florida (7-2) outrushed the Gamecocks (5-5) 171 yards to 43. The Gators averaged 25 yards on four punt returns.
“We’ve got to get faster as a team,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “I’ve said that all season. That’s something I’ve hit on that’s really hurting us in special teams, coverage speed.”
So not a major surprise; South Carolina was picked to finish last in the SEC East in Muschamp’s first season as Steve Spurrier’s replacement. Florida last year won the division title in Jim McElwain’s first year as Muschamp’s successor.
“Florida has better players than South Carolina,” longtime Gators radio play-by-play voice Mick Hubert said before the game. “Steve Spurrier says that.”
Spurrier sure knows what a good South Carolina team looks like; he built several. And he knows what happens when recruiting goes awry.
But the timing couldn’t have been better for an underdog.
Ripe for an upset
South Carolina arrived with enthusiasm apparent since Bentley took over at quarterback.
Florida was without starting quarterback Luke Del Rio and coming of a head-scratching 31-10 loss in Arkansas in which the Gators failed to score on offense.
The Gators on Saturday played with a second-string quarterback and third-string center, and suffered more injuries as the game went on.
But South Carolina wasn’t able to capitalize, not even with three Florida turnovers and a bunch of empty seats.
“They were fast sideline to sideline,” South Carolina running back David Williams said. “Even the defensive linemen were fast.”
Muschamp is well aware, having signed most of them.
“They have good pass rushers,” Muschamp said. “You’ll see that in April (NFL draft).”
Surely, there were surreal scenes Saturday.
Muschamp once coached the Florida players honored on Senior Day.
Spurrier, the Gators’ Heisman winner and national championship coach before presiding over South Carolina’s glory years, coached most of the Gamecocks. He took the field to honor Florida’s 1990 and 1991 teams.
“(They) opened the flood gates,” Spurrier said over the stadium PA system, “for all those conference and national championship teams to come.”
That caused much Gator chomp stress for Gamecock fans over the years.
Florida, Florida, Florida.
When the Gators are good, things don’t go very well for other teams in the SEC East. This Florida team, dropped from the College Football Playoff rankings, is outstanding.
But they do have a chance to win back-to-back SEC East titles for the first time since 2008-2009, Tim Tebow’s last two seasons at Florida. And even at pretty good, they are faster, deeper and better than South Carolina.
Bentley was still at it in the fourth quarter before a half-empty stadium, guiding the Gamecocks 80 yards on one touchdown drive and stalling at the Florida 11 after a 71-yard drive in the final minutes.
“The speed of the game of the game continues to slow down for him,” Muschamp said, “as well as Bryan Edwards and Rico Dowdle and Chavis Dawkins and all the other guys that are playing for the first time.”
As Bentley walked off the field, he was met by Gamecocks linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who played a part in all three Florida turnovers.
“We got your back,” Allen-Williams said.
This team sticks together admirably.
But next time Bentley and the Gamecocks come to Gainesville, they better have more guys as fast as Bryson Allen-Williams.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff