The run of big games continues for South Carolina with their biggest battle yet, as they travel to play Florida on Saturday afternoon. The Gamecocks are #7 in the BCS standings, while the Gators are #2, but more important, the winner of this game controls its fate in the SEC East the rest of the way.
South Carolina may have a loss, while Florida is still unbeaten, but the stakes for Saturday are virtually the same—win, and you’re alive for a national championship. Lose, and you’re angling for an at-large BCS bid or a Capital One Bowl slot.
There will be no major contrast in styles from Gainesville. Both teams like to run the ball, South Carolina with Marcus Lattimore and Florida with Mike Gillislee. Both teams play stout defense, especially against the run, so we can expect a very physical game in the line of scrimmage. Both try and manage the game with their quarterbacks, Connor Shaw for the Gamecocks and Jeff Driskell for the Gators. Neither offense has had a lot of success throwing to the wide receivers.
Within this common framework there are subtle differences that will end up deciding the game. Driskell is more mobile with his feet, while Shaw is more efficient in the short passing game. That distinction is a horse apiece and who has the edge will depend on factors behind the quarterback’s control—e.g., if Florida misses some tackles in the secondary, Shaw’s efficiency will have greater impact, but if the teams struggle to protect the passer, Driskell’s ability to bail himself out could be the swing factor.
Where South Carolina has an edge is the explosive quality they bring with Lattimore. He’s currently listed as questionable with a hip injury, but for the time being I’m presuming he’s going to play.
Meaning no disrespect to the performance Gillislee has given Florida, the South Carolina running back is a unique physical specimen capable of game-changing plays. And not just when he takes the handoff—Lattimore is effective catching the ball out of the backfield, giving Steve Spurrier a variety of ways to get him the ball.
Where Florida has the edge is venue—I don’ t think they’re as good as South Carolina, but playing in the Swamp is no small advantage. But at the end of the day, if you’re only edge is the homefield, I’m taking your opponent. I like South Carolina to win this game, and if I were at a betting window I like the fact I’d get 3.5 points even more.
TheSportsNotebook previewed the overall national landscape yesterday, with a special focus on key games in the Big Ten’s Legends Division. There are two other significant games in college football Week 8 that we’ll hone in on here…
Kansas State-West Virginia: If the big SEC battle features two similar teams, the Big 12 showdown in Morgantown is about two teams who come at you in completely different ways. West Virginia wants a rapid pace, with Geno Smith serving as the equivalent of a point guard on the fast break, with receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey serving as the football version of wingmen.
The Wildcats can come at a defense in a more straightforward way, running the ball with John Hubert, and then their own versatile quarterback Collin Klein can make plays with his arm and his feet. He’s nowhere near as explosive as Smith, but Klein brings toughness and efficiency to the game.
Kansas State is undefeated and ranked 4th in the BCS, but you have to doubt that they could survive a loss and still play for a national championship. Unlike conference rival Oklahoma, the Wildcats don’t have a brand-name to sell, nor do they have a non-conference opponent like Notre Dame (who visits OU next Saturday). With the Big 12 being the only major conference without a December 1 championship game, their champ won’t get much benefit of the doubt in a close vote. I think Kansas State has to go 12-0 if they want to be in Miami on January 7.
While Kansas State thinks about Miami in January, West Virginia fans have to think about December in New York. Smith’s incredible games against Baylor and Texas vaulted him to clear front-runner status for the Heisman Trophy. The quarterback did not play well last week in Texas Tech, and while the lack of clear challengers haven’t denied Smith his leading man status, you have to assume his cushion is gone. The West Virginia quarterback needs to play a big game when the voters are watching and this one is it.
So how big is Kansas State-West Virginia? Other than being decisive moments for one team’s national title hopes and one player’s Heisman Trophy prospects, and very significant in a competitive conference race, it’s no big deal at all. Kansas State is getting three, and I’ll take them to win outright. I like teams that play real football over those that play flag football.
UL Monroe-Western Kentucky: Yes, I realize by saying I consider this game one of the best three on the board for Saturday, I have thrust myself to a #1 ranking in the You Have Absolutely Got To Get A Life race, and unlike Geno Smith, I’ve got plenty of cushion to give. But the Sun Belt Conference has played good football this year, and the winner of this game will be the clear front-runner the rest of the way.
It’s also a genuine contrast-in-styles battle. Monroe can spread the field out with Kolton Browning at quarterback, while Western Kentucky is more effective if the pace of the game is slowed. Monroe is a little bit more balanced, thanks to the running of Jyruss Edwards, but the Warhawks lost depth at the position with an injury to Centarius Donald.
What the Hilltoppers bring to the table is running back Antonio Andrews, who already has 655 yards through six games and also catches passes out of the backfield. Because of his position, he’s at a disadvantage in the race for conference MVP with Browning, but UL-Monroe does not have a great defense, and there’s no reason Andrews can’t have a big game.
Western Kentucky may not be the explosive offensive team, but they are getting respect in Las Vegas, slotted as a 3.5 point favorite. As impressed as I’ve been with Browning and Monroe, I picked Western to win this conference at the start of the season, and they’ve given me no reason to abandon them on their homefield.