Mike Gillislee's performance will likely determine the outcome of this crucial SEC matchup.
Week 8 of the NCAA Football season brings us a rumble in the Swamp between two SEC powerhouses when the South Carolina Gamecocks visit the Florida Gators.
There is no shortage of intriguing storylines to go around in this matchup.
It's a clash of two top-10 teams in the BCS standings. It's a crucial game for South Carolina if they hope to play for the SEC Championship. It's Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier's return to Gainsville, the place where he won the 1966 Heisman as a Gators QB, "Fun N' Gunned" his way to six SEC championships and won a national title as their head coach in the 90s.
But the most important storyline, from an on-field perspective, is whether the banged-up Gamecocks defense can stifle Mike Gillislee and the wildly successful Florida ground game.
Florida’s offensive line and South Carolina’s defensive front are headed in opposite directions with respect to personnel availability.
Florida is returning starters Xavier Nixon and Jonotthan Harrison to the trenches, while South Carolina DTs Byron Jerideau and J.T. Surratt are fighting through injuries. And, Kelcy Quarles is out serving a one-game suspension for on-field conduct.
Entering a clash with the Gators with your defensive linemen in short supply is not a recipe for success for the Gamecocks.
That’s because Florida boasts one of the best backs in the country in Gillislee. Gillislee has racked up 615 yards on 120 carries, best among RBs in the SEC. Gillislee runs hard and with great vision; he can wear down a thin defensive front.
Beyond Gillislee, the Gators have another elite ground weapon—their QB, Jeff Driskel. Driskel isn’t much of a pocket quarterback, but he can make plays with his feet. He scampered for an impressive 70-yard touchdown against Vanderbilt last week, showing a phenomenal burst off the line in out-hustling defensive backs.
Driskel can really demoralize a defense on the ground—he’s the type of quarterback that can make plays after being flushed out of the pocket, allowing him to convert on crucial downs even if the defense penetrates the point of attack.
He's got enough playmaking ability with his feet that South Carolina includes a handful of zone-read runs for him in each game. Driskel racked up 150 yards on six such rushing plays against Vanderbilt.
South Carolina will likely address this issue by leaving a spy on the QB, but that leaves other playmakers with space to operate in the middle-third.
Florida’s edge in health should help them win in the trenches in Week 8. If Gillislee has room to run, the Gators could tire out the Gamecocks’ defense. Even though Florida has just the 114th ranked passing game in the nation, Driskel should be able to move the ball against a tired USC defense that has to respect the run.
This will be a true test of a good Gamecocks squad that aspires for greatness. If they want to keep their hopes of an SEC title alive, Spurrier and the Gamecocks will have to key in on Gillislee, keep Driskel in the pocket and force the Gators QB to make plays with his arm.
South Carolina’s front-seven will have to step up and hold Florida’s rushing attack in check, or they’ll be in danger of losing a must-win.
If they want to emerge from the Swamp unscathed—and continue to battle for a chance to return to the Georgia Dome for an SEC Championship bout—South Carolina will have to depend on its run-stoppers.
Otherwise, Florida might just run all over the Gamecocks' title hopes.