Florida Gators: Saturday's Game Will Define Their Season
The Swamp fell silent, undergrads and alumni alike standing by in nervous anticipation. You can never hear a pin drop in the Florida Gators' home stadium, but if you could, it would have been at that point.
Matt Elam had apparently stripped LSU's Odell Beckham, Jr. of the football after a long catch down the right sideline. Video replays showed the ball clearly out before Beckham's knee was down. Everyone in the stadium knew what the referee's decision would be after video review. Still, nervous silence.
"After further review," he said, "the ruling on the field is that there was a fumble."
The Swamp exploded. The biggest play of the biggest game of Florida's season had just gone the Gators' way.
But here's the thing— when all is said and done on this season, people might remember that play and that game, but it's what will happen Saturday against South Carolina that will define the Gators.
Two years ago, South Carolina came into a blued-out Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and absolutely dominated the Gators. After Florida's Andre Debose took the opening kickoff to the house, it was a ground-and-pound nightmare for Urban Meyer's team.
Marcus Lattimore had 40 carries for 212 yards and three touchdowns, which is the only stat line that anyone who saw that game would remember. It was one of the most dominant rushing performances in recent memory, and one of the most embarrassing defensive failures.
Last year, Florida went to Columbia and came close to laying a total egg. Even with Lattimore out, South Carolina ran all over the Gators. There was no hope.
It's teams like South Carolina that validate Florida coach Will Muschamp's belief that the SEC is truly a line-of-scrimmage league. Games are won in the trenches, not in the 100-meter dash. The team that can physically and mentally dominate is the team that will have success in college football's best conference.
Beating LSU was great. In fact, many may disagree and look at that game as the defining game of Florida's season. But LSU has a one-dimensional quarterback who makes John Brantley look like Johnny Unitas and no true playmakers. Their defense is elite, but beatable.
South Carolina is different. They have a dual-threat quarterback (something Florida has historically struggled against), the best running back in the country and an equally elite defense. In Muschamp's Monday press conference, he said that Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney can "ruin your day." He will be the best defensive player Florida faces this year.
So why will Saturday's game be the one that defines the season?
Because Florida will be playing a carbon-copy of themselves. Think about it.
Connor Shaw is a more advanced passer than Jeff Driskel, but not nearly the runner Driskel is. Mike Gillislee is not Marcus Lattimore, but he does lead the SEC in rushing. And Florida's defense, despite a lackluster showing against Vanderbilt last Saturday, is one of the best units in the country.
These teams are predicated on an identical philosophy—beat a team so badly physically that you break their will. That's what Florida did against LSU, and that's what South Carolina did against Georgia.
People will read a lot into Carolina's loss against LSU last week, but it honestly means nothing. Winning a game in Death Valley is probably the toughest thing to do in college football, and the Gamecocks were a few plays away from doing just that.
So now, the Gators and Gamecocks will play a game that will, in all likelihood, determine the landscape of the SEC East. As much as it may be premature to say, but the Artist Formerly Known as Georgia will not win this division. It's going to be Florida or South Carolina, and it's likely going to be the winner of Saturday's game.
Will Muschamp has won acceptance in Gainesville, and fans are finally buying into his boring-but-effective pound the rock style of football. A win Saturday against the Visor and his Gamecocks would elevate him to rock star status and probably book Florida a ticket to Atlanta.
A win would tell Gator Nation, the SEC and the entire country that Florida's No. 2 BCS ranking is well-deserved and that the Gators are a legitimate threat for the national title.
A loss wouldn't cause fans to write "Fire Muschamp" on the Bull Gator, and fans definitely won't egg their quarterback's house, but it would cast a bit of doubt about the team's philosophy. The season wouldn't be over by any means, but when the year is over, fans will turn back to this South Carolina game.
A win would have Florida thinking big. Thinking Atlanta. Thinking Miami. Thinking Alabama.
And it all will depend on what happens Saturday.
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