Fresh off of clinching the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division for the first time since 2009, Florida’s next matchup is against a team that is currently trying to find its identity: South Carolina.
The No. 10 Gators and coach Jim McElwain will head to Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday to play the Gamecocks, whose season changed when coach Steve Spurrier abruptly resigned on Oct. 13.
At the beginning of the season, South Carolina (3-6, 1-4 SEC) had tempered expectations following a 7-6 season in 2014 that concluded with a bowl win over Miami.
The Gamecocks were picked to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division by the media— a spot ahead of Florida (8-1, 6-1 SEC).
And while this season got off to a good start with a 17-13 season-opening win against North Carolina, the Tar Heels’ only loss this season, things have gone downhill for the Gamecocks since then.
South Carolina stumbled to a 1-4 record after the win over UNC, with the downfall peaking in a 45-24 loss to LSU on Oct. 10.
Three days later, Spurrier — the winningest coach in the history of the program — stepped aside and co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Shawn Elliott took over.
But McElwain said that despite Spurrier’s absence, South Carolina is dangerous because the team has nothing to lose.
"I think they’re playing for a lot of reasons," McElwain said. "Obviously, he (Spurrier) built his legacy there. Here’s a guy who put them back on the map. When you turn the film on, you see how close they were."
Since Elliott took over, the Gamecocks are 1-2, with a win against the Commodores and losses to Texas A&M and a 27-24 loss to Tennessee. If it weren’t for a late fumble against the Volunteers, South Carolina would have momentum on its side when the Gators arrive.
In their recent meetings, close games have been the story between Florida and South Carolina.
UF has lost the last two meetings against the Gamecocks, including blowing a fourth quarter lead, which ended in a 23-20 loss in overtime.
South Carolina has won three of the last four meetings and other than Florida’s 44-11 blowout win in Gainesville in 2012, the Gamecocks wins during that span have been decided by five points or less.
"It’s always a pretty good game. It’s always close between us," senior defensive back Brian Poole said. "Pretty much we’re excited for it. I’m sure the coach will have a good game plan in. If we go out and execute it and we should be OK."
The Gamecocks are searching for their statement win under Elliott and the Gators can provide that opportunity. Florida was unimpressive offensively in its win against Vanderbilt, gaining just 258 yards of offense on just 12 first downs.
Florida might also be without two defensive leaders on Saturday as Jon Bullard and Keanu Neal’s statuses are up in the air after they sustained injuries against Vanderbilt.
McElwain said Bullard is dealing with an arm injury and that he is doubtful for the game, while Neal is dealing with a foot injury and is questionable.
With the way the Gators played and the injuries to two of their defensive stalwarts, McElwain is aware that Saturday’s game could be a trap for Florida if UF comes out uninspired having already secured a spot in the SEC title game.
"They beat, what, a whatever-and-one North Carolina team that’s playing lights out now," McElwain said.
"They’ve been in all these games. I don’t want to be that guy that lets them get over the hump."
Follow Luis Torres on Twitter @LFTorresIII
UF football coach Jim McElwain receives the game ball following Florida's 9-7 win against Vanderbilt on Nov. 7, 2015, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.