Florida Football: Showdown with Gamecocks Is a Critical SEC Game for Gators

Tyler PiccottiContributor IIIOctober 15, 2012

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 13:  Jordan Matthews #87 of the Vanderbilt Commodores reaches for Solomon Patton #83 of the Florida Gators at Vanderbilt Stadium on October 13, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Not many fans or experts picked the Florida Gators to do much of anything this season. After all, they were coming off an abysmal 7-6 season under new head coach Will Muschamp. Their offense looked terrible at times, and more of the same was expected with two sophomore quarterbacks atop the depth chart. The team's transition to a more conventional offensive scheme looked nowhere close to being finished.

Simply put, the Gators were an afterthought in the SEC race, a team that was talented but not mature enough to legitimately compete for a conference title.

In just six games, however, the Gators have gone from pretender to heavyweight contender.

Ranked second in the season's first BCS standings, Will Muschamp's squad has consistently proven people wrong this season. The Gators went on the road and beat an improved Tennessee team. They silenced the LSU Tigers offense en route to a huge upset victory. More importantly, they haven't lost to any opponent thus far.

The offense has vastly improved as well. Jeff Driskel, although inconsistent with his arm at times, has limited turnovers and burned teams with his running ability.

Speaking of running, Mike Gillislee has pounded his way through opposing defenses. Solomon Patton has emerged as a big-play threat. Almost everyone seems to have had at least one moment when they rose to the occasion and made a big play.

While improvement is nice, it won't amount to anything meaningful in the SEC unless the Gators can play their way into a BCS bowl—more specifically, the championship game. That's why the importance of this week's showdown with South Carolina cannot be understated.

After losing to LSU, the Gamecocks sit one game behind the East-leading Gators. With a win, the Gamecocks would tie Florida and also hold the tiebreaker between the two teams. With an easier schedule to close out the season, it is very likely that Steve Spurrier's squad can run the table and thus make the SEC title game.

In other words, the Gators control their own destiny if they win on Saturday. If they lose, they need to both rely on others' misfortunes and take care of their own business against Georgia and Missouri.

Still, this game is about more than standings and playoff scenarios. Steve Spurrier built Florida into a powerhouse through his efforts as a player and coach. Now, he is common enemy No. 1. After years of underachievement, he currently possesses the most talented team he's had in a long time. He has also had the Gators' number in recent matchups. Don't think for a second that the Gators do not understand the significance of beating the Old Ball Coach.

Perhaps most importantly, however, a win against the Gamecocks would give the Gators an unimaginable amount of confidence. Even after starting 6-0, people are overlooking them. Even if they should run the table, they would still be seen as a heavy underdog against prohibitive favorite Alabama.

By beating another top-10 opponent, the Gators should feel like they could beat anyone if they play at their best. This is especially helpful to a guy like Driskel, who has little experience in the spotlights of a big stage. It would also likely lead to the full return of the swagger once characteristic of Florida's defense. In other words, the Gators would be able to instill fear into any opponent they came across.

There's a reason College GameDay will be in Gainesville this Saturday. This game could go a long way toward determining who gets a chance to play for the national title. For Florida, it could also mark a triumphant return to national prominence in the realm of college football. 

For this reason, you can bet the Swamp will be rocking. You can also bet that the Gators will be ready to make yet another statement to their critics.