Florida Gators vs. South Carolina: Key Matchups That Could Decide the Game

Which individual matchups could make the biggest difference when Florida plays South Carolina on Saturday?

Air-raid? More like Gator-aid, am I right?

What the Florida offense did in week one was, I think, beyond what anyone’s expectations for what the offense could be. Analysts, writers and fans all assumed the offense would be good. But 51 points and 642 yards in the debut with no spring football? No. No one expected this.

On the flip side, the defensive showing also was probably not something most Gator faithful anticipated. Sure, they faced a brand-new offense with Lane Kiffin and Matt Corral, and Kiffin’s offenses are notoriously elite, but tackling and communication need to be cleaned up quickly.

"[Tackling] just gets better every game," Gators linebacker Ventrell Miller said. "I mean, of course, there's gonna be missed tackles in a game but just never many of them... everybody pursuing to the ball so those missed tackles don't really show up in games."

Fortunately for the Gators, the defense is facing a less explosive offense on Saturday in Florida’s home-opener against South Carolina. UF is currently an 18-point favorite, per OddsShark.

South Carolina is coming off a 31-27 loss to Tennessee. It was an up-and-down performance for Will Muschamp’s squad, as they introduced a new offense led by former Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo.

Last year, the Gamecocks gave the Gators all they could handle, holding a lead in the fourth quarter until Florida eventually came back and won by three scores. Don’t expect the Gators to have to come back in the fourth quarter this time, as Florida is the far superior team on paper this season.

Here are this week’s key matchups that will determine if this game is a Florida blow-out or a competitive game through the fourth quarter.

Tight end Kyle Pitts vs. defensive back Israel Mukuamu

Florida head coach Dan Mullen said earlier in the week that Pitts is a “unicorn’ and defenses need either a linebacker who can run with him, or a safety that’s 6-foot-3, 230-pound and can be physical with him. This is about as close a matchup as you can get for Pitts that meets that criteria.

Mukuamu stands at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, likes to play press coverage and has very long arms. If anyone can defend Pitts one-on-one, it’s the Gamecocks' top defensive back.

“They’re long, they’re lanky, and they like to hold," senior wide receiver Trevon Grimes said of the South Carolina defensive backs. That sounds like the recipe to slow down a big, physical pass-catching threat.

Mukuamu wasn’t targeted much during South Carolina’s game versus Tennessee, and he missed the latter part of the game with a groin injury. Muschamp said he expects Mukuamu to be fine for this week.

However, when healthy, he can be a top cornerback in the SEC. The matchup between him and Pitts will be fun to watch. This will be as tough a test Pitts will face in single coverage all season, and Mukuamu will test the strength that Pitts said he put on in the offseason.

Pitts won’t win every battle, Mukuamu is just that good. Ask Jake Fromm, who threw three interceptions to the Gamecocks' defensive back in 2019 in an upset loss. Should Pitts have his way against Mukuamu, it could force safety help to be rotated to Pitts' side and leave other receivers in single coverage against what is otherwise a shaky South Carolina secondary. Jaycee Horn could also pose a threat on the outside.

Marco Wilson/STAR cornerback vs. slot receiver Shi Smith

Look familiar? That’s because Florida will be facing another elite slot receiver in South Carolina’s Shi Smith this week.

Smith was Hill’s favorite target in week one, hauling in 10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. Smith was primarily targeted between the hashes, a place where Ole Miss slot receiver Elijah Moore shredded the Gators.

Wilson, or whoever is tasked with lining up against Smith, needs to be better. Smith isn’t quite as explosive as Moore, but he’s no slouch either.

"They're going to find ways to get him the ball," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "We're going to have to have awareness of him and make sure we don't let him beat us single-handedly."

It initially appeared that Wilson was tasked with straight man-to-man coverage against Moore, but numerous times when Moore made receptions, Wilson was out of the play and throwing his hands up in frustration after the catch.

If Smith can be corralled, the Gators should be fine matching up with the rest of the South Carolina pass catchers. Kaiir Elam will more than likely be lined up with sophomore Xavier Legette outside, and Elam has the height and skill advantage there.

UF's pass rush vs. quarterback Collin Hill

The Gators sacked Corral four times last Saturday, and were able to get the Ole Miss signal-caller off of his spot often. Corral is a very athletic, mobile quarterback though, and got out of pressure successfully.

Hill isn’t as slippery.

He too was sacked four times in week one, and was under pressure frequently that resulted poorly for South Carolina's offense. Hill threw a pick-six under duress in the second quarter, along with a forced fumble, and it was the key to Tennessee’s success in slowing down the South Carolina passing game.

However, when given time to throw, Hill was deadly accurate and made good decisions with the ball.

"He’s a mature guy, he’s competitive, he’s got toughness," Grantham said. "He does understand where to go with the football in that offense. I would think his demeanor is something they want in that huddle as they try to be a physical team and establish the run."

Hill doesn’t have the escapability or elusiveness that Corral has, and it’ll free up a defender that otherwise would have to spy the quarterback.

Initially, I didn’t think Zach Carter played a great game, but after a second and third watch of the Gators opening season win, I realized he actually pushed the pocket often and was the reason Corral had to scramble so much. Other guys along the defensive line, primarily Khris Bogle and blitzing linebackers, need to clean up the havoc Carter created with plays in the backfield.

This is the exact recipe to stifle Hill: Collapse the pocket. He was very inaccurate under pressure, and if the Gators pass rush shows up Saturday, it’s going to be a long day for Hill and company.

UF's second-level vs. the short passing game

Of Hill’s 39 pass attempts versus Tennessee, 14 of them began at or behind the line of scrimmage. That’s about one-third of his passes.

Florida was very good against Ole Miss at defending screens and sweep-style plays, albeit Ole Miss ran very few of them, but that ability will be paramount against Bobo’s offense. It’ll be up to linebackers Ventrell Miller, Amari Burney and the defensive end group to sniff out screens and be solid in pursuit on swing passes, primarily against talented sophomore Deshaun Fenwick, who caught four passes for 45 yards on screens and swing routes.

I’m also going to lump the short passing game to the tight end in this category, as Nick Muse for the Gamecocks is a very solid pass catcher and veteran who was open often on pop-passes and RPO-style plays. Burney and Miller will again be important in staying disciplined defending short seam and crossing routes.