Mirror images in the Swamp Saturday
When Steve Spurrier steps onto Florida Field Saturday, he'll face major déjà vu. And it won't just be because of his surroundings.
Sure, the nostalgia of being back in the Swamp will rush over him like a tidal wave, and that sea of orange and blue will slightly tug at his heart as it did almost every Saturday in the 1990s. But he'll also see something even more presently familiar when the Gators line up.
Saturday's matchup between No. 2 Florida (6-0) and No. 7 South Carolina (6-1) features two teams so eerily similar that they could almost switch uniforms and few people would really notice.
Both teams rely on high-powered running games and suffocating defenses and have nimble quarterbacks who are very dangerous with their legs.
They aren't carbon copies, but their roads toward the SEC championship game in Atlanta follow very similar, fundamental paths.
The defenses, which are third and fourth in the SEC in total defense, are separated by only a couple of yards in total, passing and rushing defense, and both allow 12.3 points a game. Both offensive lines will get a good preview of what's to come with the talented defensive fronts they practice against each week.
ESPN.com blogger Edward Aschoff and Mike DiRocco of GatorNation preview Week 8 of the college football season, highlighting the South Carolina-Florida game.
Florida has been more run-oriented, averaging 233.3 yards on the ground and only 145 through the air, while South Carolina has averaged 217.9 passing yards and 160.4 rushing yards.
Both average 378.3 total yards a game.
"We always shoot for balance -- running and throwing -- but sometimes the running is more important than the throwing and that's what you tend to do more often," Spurrier said.
Both teams love to pound on the ground, using a running back and a quarterback to do it. The Gators have Mike Gillislee and speedy quarterback Jeff Driskel, and South Carolina has Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw. Florida has more weapons in its rushing attack, but most of hammer comes from Driskel and Gillislee.
And both teams adore the zone read. According to ESPN Stats & Information, both run more than 60 percent of the time, with quarterbacks playing key roles. Driskel has owned zone-read runs, averaging 16.9 yards per rush (15 carries), with three touchdowns and nine rushes of 10 or more yards. (On six zone-read runs against Vanderbilt, Driskel rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns.) Shaw, also with 15 carries, averages 5.7 yards with a touchdown and four 10-plus-yard runs.
Low: Spurrier returns to the Swamp
Steve Spurrier has been back to the Swamp before as South Carolina head coach. But the stakes haven't been anywhere near as high as they'll be Saturday. Chris Low
They also can gain yards when plays breaks down, as Driskel is averaging 8.8 yards per scramble and Shaw is averaging 5.5 yards.
So maybe bring more pressure? Not so fast.
Against the blitz, Shaw is completing 69 percent of his passes and Driskel is completing 54.3 percent. Shaw averages 7.8 yards per attempt and Driskel averages 7.2. Driskel has taken eight sacks (mainly because he holds the ball so long) and Shaw has taken four.
Driskel has thrown three touchdowns to no interceptions, and Shaw has tossed three with two interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Driskel averaged only 69 passing yards in the past two games, but Florida coach Will Muschamp is confident Driskel can throw when asked.
He proved it in comeback wins over Texas A&M and Tennessee (both on the road), but we've mainly seen a run-way-more approach since, and South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward expects that trend to continue.
"What we spent time doing is preparing for the run game," Ward said.
"We gave very little emphasis to the passing game. If they want to throw the football, so be it, that's what I want them to do. We definitely practiced to stop the run this week."
And the attention should be on the run, especially Gillislee. He leads SEC running backs with 615 yards and wears down opponents in the second half, averaging 6 yards per carry in the last two quarters in SEC games. He gutted LSU for 112 yards and two touchdowns in the second half of Florida's 14-6 win.
But Florida has to be equally careful of Lattimore, who is sixth in the SEC in rushing (584) and tied for first in rushing touchdowns (10). A hip injury could limit or sideline him, but if Lattimore is in, he could do some damage, especially in the fourth quarter. He's averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has six rushes of 10 or more yards in the final quarter against SEC teams, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
"We've got to stop their running game, and they'd probably tell you the same thing," Spurrier said. "They've got to stop us from running and try to get us throwing more often than we'd like to."
They've combined for 217 yards on 40 carries this season.
Florida wins the kicking battle, but South Carolina's Ace Sanders has the ability to break one on punt returns. Fortunately for the Gators, they are allowing only 6.2 yards per punt return.
This one has the makings of a rugged stalemate. The first side to show any hint of fatigue could be done, and health (or lack thereof) could be a major factor for South Carolina.
But the SEC East is on the line. Forget pain, it's win or kiss Atlanta goodbye. Stats and similarities aside, resolve might be the difference Saturday.