Florida wraps up its first season under Coach Billy Napier at The Swamp on Saturday with a chance to show more progress and build momentum toward next season.
The Gators (5-4, 2-4 SEC) can clinch a bowl trip for the fifth straight season with a win over South Carolina (6-3, 3-3 SEC) (4 p.m., SEC Network). Florida is 4-2 at home this season, with the two losses coming to Top 25 opponents – No. 8 LSU and No. 24 Kentucky.
“We’re still searching for that complete game, when we play with all three parts of our team for all four quarters,” Napier said.
Florida’s 41-24 win last week at a depleted Texas A&M team was its largest margin of victory against an FBS opponent this season.
The Gators executed well on offense and special teams throughout the game but were lethargic on defense in the first half in allowing Texas A&M to jump to a 24-20 halftime lead. In the second half, Florida played complementary football, with the defense forcing two three-and-outs and two more turnovers to help the offense. The Gators dominated the second half, outscoring the Aggies 21-0.
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“Certainly hopeful down the stretch here that we can put it all together,” Napier said.
Here are five storylines to watch for the Gators against the Gamecocks:
Defense looks to carry over performance from Texas A&M
Florida put together its best 30-minute stretch of the season on defense in the second half against Texas A&M, limiting the Aggies to no points and 109 yards while forcing two turnovers. The goal for the Gators is to play to that standard again to start the game against South Carolina.
“We can definitely build off this,” Florida edge rusher Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. said. “I feel like that we – this should be a turning point to what we showed we could do. Now it’s just the fact of doing it every time. And I feel like now that we see it on film, we’ve got no choice but to do it.”
Another chance to create turnovers
Florida has posted a 4-0 turnover margin over its last three games. Its 16 turnovers forced and plus-6 turnover margin both rank second in the SEC behind only Tennessee (18 turnovers, plus-8 turnovers).
South Carolina has turned the ball over an SEC-high 20 times, so it’s an area that Florida can exploit. Look for Florida to pressure and mix coverages at starting South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler, who has thrown nine interceptions on the season.
“It’s always a point emphasis,” Napier said of turnovers. “It’s part of our formula to win. We try to take care of the ball on offense, own the ball and then we try to create takeaways and attack the ball on defense.”
Awareness on special teams
South Carolina coach Shane Beamer takes after his father, legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, in his team’s ability to execute and come up with trick plays on special teams. The Gamecocks lead in the nation in blocked punts with 5, got a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD from Xavier Legette against Texas A&M and have recorded a pair of first-down conversions on fake punts.
“They’re No. 1 in the league in field position differential so they’ve certainly done a great job not only covering kicks but returning kicks,” Napier said. “They fake. They’ve got a gauntlet of fakes that you got to prepare for … certainly coach Beamer and his dad and their history there with the special teams, it’s part of competing against this team, the special teams part.”
Florida’s special teams have improved in recent weeks, with Xzavier Henderson recording a 28-yard punt return in the third quarter against Texas A&M, his second punt return of 25 or more yards on the season.
An emotional senior day
Florida will honor 18 of its seniors at The Swamp on Saturday. The biggest ovations could come to three starters on defense — safety Trey Dean, linebacker Amari Burney and linebacker Ventrell Miller.
“I’m not the type of person to cry but I’m just going to feel some type of way just knowing that this is my last game in The Swamp,” Burney said. “The freshmen that came in they are like brothers to me already … I’m just happy to have been here for this long and just want to go out with a bang.”
Florida also will honor running back Nay’quan Wright, left tackle Richard Gouraige and wide receiver Trent Whittemore, three players with eligibility remaining who have the option of leaving as graduate transfers. “These are guys that have their degree,” Napier said. “They’ve been here a number of years and certainly view themselves as seniors and wanted to be part of this Senior Day.”
Florida is looking to avenge a 40-17 loss at South Carolina last season that signaled the beginning of the end of the Dan Mullen era. The Gamecocks rushed for 284 yards on 6.8 yards per carry in the win.
“We always owe somebody one when they get us the year before,” Burney said. “We took a lot from it, but I feel like last year is last year and this year is this year. Two different teams, and we’ve got a new coaching staff, so I feel like what happened last year doesn’t play too big of a factor. We’re just trying to go out there and win a game.”
Florida also will get a second chance to beat Rattler, who didn’t play for South Carolina against Florida last season. However, as the starting quarterback at Oklahoma in 2020, he threw for 247 yards and 3 TDs in Oklahoma’s 55-20 Cotton Bowl win over the Gators.
“When pressure gets (him) outside the pocket, I feel like he’s a big, most dangerous quarterback,” Burney said. “Just keeping him in the pocket and not letting him scramble around, that’s really just our mindset.”