- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After the first 15 minutes of Saturday's game against No. 9 South Carolina, No. 2 Florida had minus-9 yards of total offense.
After the first 30 minutes, the Gators had more than twice as many penalty yards (64) as they had yards of offense (29).
Yet somehow, Florida had a 15-point halftime lead over the Gamecocks at the Swamp after one of the strangest halves of college football you'll ever see.
The Gators came out in the second half and steamrolled the Gamecocks 44-11 in front of a sellout crowd of 90,833 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, handing South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier a second consecutive defeat after the Gamecocks opened the season by winning their first six games.
"It's another team win, and we don't have a lot of margin for error here," said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose Gators improved to 7-0 (6-0 SEC) in his second season, after finishing 7-6 in 2011. "We are a team that is playing defense pretty consistently, and on offense we're doing what we have to do to take advantage of other teams. That's really who we are."
At first blush, Florida might not look as good as its current No. 2 rating in the Bowl Championship Series standings. If you like offense and lots of points, No. 3 Oregon (which is No. 2 in both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and USA Today coaches' poll) or No. 4 Kansas State might be more appealing.
If you like defense, No. 5 Notre Dame might be just as good.
But the Gators have probably accomplished more than any of them at this point. They came from behind to defeat Texas A&M and Tennessee on the road, and beat a pair of top-10 teams, LSU and South Carolina, at home.
The Gators might not be the prettiest team in the country to watch, but they're sure as hell one of the toughest and most confident.
"Right now, we're doing what it takes to win football games, and that's the bottom line," Muschamp said. "That's the only thing I care about."
And if Florida keeps winning, it might have the best chance at playing in the Jan. 7 Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
No team in the country controls its destiny like Florida does with six weeks to play in the regular season.
The Gators can clinch an SEC East title by defeating No. 11 Georgia next week in Jacksonville, Fla. Georgia lost 35-7 at South Carolina two weeks ago, but could climb back into the driver's seat in the SEC East by upsetting Florida.
Florida won 18 of the previous 22 meetings in the annual border rivalry, although the Bulldogs won 24-20 in Muschamp's first game against his alma mater last season. UGA hasn't won consecutive games in the series since 1988-89, the year before Spurrier was hired as the Gators' coach.
After facing the Bulldogs, Florida closes its SEC schedule against reeling Missouri at home Nov. 3. The Gators then close the regular season with three consecutive nonconference games -- home against Louisiana-Lafayette on Nov. 10 and FCS foe Jacksonville State on Nov. 17, and at No. 14 Florida State on Nov. 24.
If the Gators defeat Georgia and Missouri the next two weeks, they'll probably play No. 1 Alabama or No. 6 LSU in the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
"We play in Jacksonville next week," Muschamp said. "We have a one-game season."
Saturday's victory over South Carolina was one of Florida's strangest.
The Gators ran 18 times for 13 yards and completed six passes for 16 yards in the first half. Somehow, they still had a 21-6 lead by scoring three touchdowns after South Carolina turnovers.
"The only thing you can hope is that your guys give it their best shot and not just lay the ball down and basically say, 'Here, Florida, we don't want to win. You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble,'" Spurrier said. "It was sad. And the other side, their defense stuffed us. They stopped our running game and our passing game."
On the game's opening play, Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy blitzed and sacked quarterback Connor Shaw, whose fumble was recovered by UF end Lerentee McCray at the USC 2. Two plays later, quarterback Jeff Driskel threw a 3-yard touchdown to tight end Jordan Reed for a 7-0 lead.
After South Carolina kicked a 35-yard field goal to make it 7-3, the Gators scored touchdowns after the Gamecocks fumbled a punt return and kickoff return.
"When you get turnovers, it's easy to put points on the board, especially when you get the ball at the 1 and the 3," said Driskel, who completed 11 of 16 passes for 93 yards with four touchdowns.
Like Notre Dame's offense, Florida's is still very much a work in progress. In fact, Driskel still seems to be taking baby steps in getting there. The Gators had only 183 yards of offense, but scored touchdowns in six of seven trips in the red zone and went 7-for-16 on third down.
"We scored 44 points tonight," Driskel said. "We ran the ball effectively and hit some passes when we needed to. Obviously, there's room for improvement, but I thought we played well on offense tonight."
And it's not like the offense isn't getting a lot of help. Florida's defense is as physically imposing as any in the country, including Alabama's. The Gators sacked South Carolina's quarterbacks four times and held tailback Marcus Lattimore to only 13 yards on three carries.
"We understand now," said Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. "That's the biggest thing. We understand what our coaches want and what we should expect from each other."
"When you play like we do, you better be good in special teams and have good specialists," Muschamp said. "You better have a punter who can flip the field and have a kicker who can make points."
Along with Florida's opportunistic offense and stingy defense, it might end up being an unlikely recipe for a championship.
"I expect to win them all," Muschamp said. "I did last year. I like this better."
Mark Schlabach writes that the Florida Gators used an unusual recipe of stingy defense and opportunistic offense to dominate South Carolina in Week 8.