GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The last time South Carolina played at Florida, the Gamecocks celebrated a division title.
Coach Steve Spurrier got doused and carried to midfield. Players hooted and hollered on the sideline, in the locker room and on the flight home.
The Gators remember it vividly.
“That’s a feeling you’ll never forget,” safety Josh Evans said.
No doubt, third-ranked Florida (6-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) will use that 36-14 loss as motivation when the ninth-ranked Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1) return to The Swamp today.
“It’s definitely revenge,” Evans said. “It would mean a lot to this team and definitely the roll we’re on this year trying to stay undefeated.”
No titles are on the line in this one, but the winner will take command in the Eastern Division. Making it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game is the top goal for both teams, and today’s loser will need a lot of help getting there.
“We realize it’s an extremely important game down there in The Swamp,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully our guys will be ready to play their best one of the year.”
South Carolina is coming off its worst game of the season.
Marcus Lattimore was held to 35 yards rushing, Connor Shaw threw two interceptions and the Gamecocks allowed 258 yards rushing in a 23-21 loss at Louisiana State. The Tigers outgained South Carolina 406-211, recorded four sacks and converted 11 of 19 times on third down.
“It was just frustrating,” South Carolina linebacker DeVonte Holloman said. “Some plays, we were at the point of attack and did not make those plays that we’ve been making all year. I felt like we kind of took a punch and we didn’t give one back sometimes. Being more physical, that’s what we’re working on.”
Being healthier might help, too.
Lattimore, who ran 40 times for a career-high 212 yards and three touchdowns two years ago in Gainesville, has a bruised hip that kept him out of practice this week and will keep him out of the starting lineup today. Standout defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has a foot problem that has limited him in practice. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles won’t play because of a shoulder injury, and defensive linemen Byron Jerideau and J.T. Surratt have been slowed by sprained ankles.
And a flu bug has worked its way through the team, affecting receivers Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington.
Florida, meanwhile, is getting several players back in time for the stretch run.
Defensive end Dominique Easley (knee) and linebacker Jelani Jenkins (hamstring) are expected to return to the starting lineup Saturday. So are left tackle Xavier Nixon (upper body), guard James Wilson (eye) and center Jon Harrison (elbow).
Florida’s offensive line has been key to the team’s ground attack.
Senior Mike Gillislee is averaging a little more than 102 yards rushing a game. Two weeks ago against LSU, he ran 34 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel is averaging 54 yards a game on the ground and has scored four times. Last week at Vanderbilt, Driskel set a school record for rushing by a quarterback with 177 yards. He had touchdown runs of 13, 37 and 70 yards.
“If we can get the run stopped and make them one-dimensional, we’ll do very good,” South Carolina linebacker Shaq Wilson said.
The Gators have the same game plan, even if it’s backup Kenny Miles carrying the ball instead of Lattimore.
Without Lattimore last season, the Gamecocks ran for 215 yards in a 17-12 win against Florida.
Brandon Wilds had 120 yards rushing, and Shaw added 88 yards and two scores on the ground.
“Shaw is just a winner, a guy that creates plays with his legs, does a lot of good things for their football team,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “The play is never dead with him. He can create so much with his legs and he’s a tough, hard-nosed, competitive guy, a guy you enjoy competing against because of the way he plays the game.”
South Carolina and Georgia were popular, preseason picks to win the East. Florida has been much more of a surprise in Muschamp’s second season.
The Gators have shown toughness, resiliency and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win games. They already avenged a 30-point loss to LSU and would like nothing more than to check the Gamecocks off the list next – even if few players are willing to openly admit it.
“Really, to tell you the truth, it’s just another game for us,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said. “It’s another SEC opponent. We’ve got to play well to win this game. We can’t really look over them or look at this game any different than any other game.”