If there’s one word that is synonymous with SEC football, that word is defense. It fuels much of the conference and is key even with teams that don’t possess good defenses. This weekend’s game between the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks features two great defenses, and no doubt they will be a big part of why their team wins or loses.
It was only two weeks ago that the Gators faced a situation very similar to the one they face on Saturday: a big conference home game with both teams in the top ten and possessing national title aspirations. The only difference is that this Saturday the Gators are the team inside the top three looking to protect an undefeated record.
That day the LSU Tigers came into The Swamp and met defeat 14-6 in a rough, defensive game. Hours later, the Gamecocks’ defense held the Georgia Bulldogs, with an offense that put up 51 points the week before, to just seven on a very, very late score. I believe that this game is destined to be defensive.
It’s ironic that both teams possess rushing-based offenses that play right into the hand of a quality defense and also contributes to creating a defensive game. Both teams have the statistical evidence to back up their defensive superiority as the teams rank fifth and sixth respectively (the Gamecocks fifth) in points allowed, both surrendering around twelve points per game.
What is intriguing about this matchup is that both teams possess similar characteristics on defense. Both teams seem to rely on more of a smothering defense and not so much one dominated only by big plays. They don’t give up points, they don’t give up yards on the ground, though they do give up yards through the air. They are very similar looking in their games, even for one half last week the Gamecocks appeared to be physical with the Tigers the same way the Gators had been the week before.
One thing to watch for is if either of these great defenses hits their wall in this game. Preferably watch for this in the second half if it’s going to happen at all. Neither of these defenses has performed poorly in any game or any half yet this season. Even last week, the Gamecocks simply ran out of gas on defense, though that was partially thanks to the Tigers putting a stop to their offense. When the Gators went toe-to-toe with the Tennessee Volunteers for three quarters their defense gave up twenty points, but backed it up with a strong end to the third quarter and a great final quarter. And it was the Gators’ defense that allowed the comeback against the Texas A&M Aggies to happen by getting their act together and shutting out the Aggies in the second half.
A big factor is whether or not running back Marcus Lattimore will play on Saturday for the Gamecocks. Could we be days away from another great home performance from the Gators’ D in a big game? The Gamecocks are vulnerable being on the road following a tough road loss and potentially without their best player. If Lattimore does play, then it’s a question of how much he will play and how many rushes he ends up getting. Lattimore status is in question because he bruised a hip and is now uncertain for Saturday’s game.
Whether or not he plays, the Gators may still have an advantage with a less than 100% Lattimore on the field. Of course some big completions by Connor Shaw could make up for not having what Lattimore would bring. And what about Kenny Miles? The senior Gamecock running back appears to be getting the start if Lattimore isn’t. So what about him? He hasn’t gotten a ton of carries this year, but don’t forget the value of a good offensive line and how they can contribute to a good rushing performance simply by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. And you never know when someone could just have one of those big days thanks to this kind of circumstance.
There are so many variables surrounding the defenses in this game. It seems fitting. For two teams that have relied at times as well as benefited from the play of their defenses, why shouldn’t both team’s biggest conference game of the year come down to whose defense performs better?