Florida is priced as a 6.5 point favorite, a figure that seems high. Even granting the Gators the traditional three-point courtesy to the home team, have we seen anything this year that suggests Florida is more than a field goal better than South Carolina on a neutral field. It seems to me an overreaction to the Gamecocks' poor performance last week against Arkansas, a loss that will haunt them in bowl positioning if they don't win both this game and the SEC title. But Florida has not looked the part of a championship team this season. They lost a home game to Mississippi State. They were embarrassed at Alabama. They lost at home to LSU. They barely escaped Georgia. At no point, save last week against Vanderbilt, have they really looked devastating.
Tonight's game will revolve around two key factors. The first is the ability of Florida to run the ball. They've been at their best when either Chris Rainey or Jeff Demps can lead the way. It's been inconsistent, but on the flip side, South Carolina's run defense has been equally unpredictable. From being rolled by Auburn to shutting down Alabama, we've seen the Gamecocks' D run the gamut of performance. In this matchup tonight, South Carolina has a lot of edges. Stephen Garcia is a superior quarterback to John Brantley and Alshon Jeffrey and Marcus Lattimore are the two best playmakers on the field. Florida's hope is to run the ball well, and then force Garcia into the mistakes he can be prone to making.
The other factor is psychological. Looking at the matchup on paper, the only way I can see Florida winning is the customary chance you give to any home team. But there's a different dynamic in play when a rising team has to take down the traditional bully, especially on the road. Here, I draw an analogy to baseball and the League Championship Series. Texas was as good, if not better than New York on paper. San Francisco matched up very well with Philadelphia. The question was whether either upstart would wilt on the bright lights of the big stage. Once it became apparent they wouldn't, their victories weren't nearly as surprising as many made it seem. If South Carolina can handle the pressure tonight, they're going to win this game and do it decisively. The presence of Steve Spurrier on the sideline gives me the confidence to pick them to do just that. Let's call it 31-17 for the Gamecocks.
It's a big day in the ACC, as Virginia Tech can also seal a division title when they visit North Carolina. The Hokies need one win in the next two to lock things up, but both are difficult road tests and a loss here really makes the trip to Miami next week interesting. The Tar Heels are coming off a win over Florida State and have handled the travails of this season admirably after early suspensions derailed what might have been an even bigger year. Tech needs to get after Tyler Yates and not let him get untracked or the Heel quarterback can put up some big numbers. I'm looking for a good one here, down to the wire and think Carolina keeps the Coastal Division race alive one more week with a 34-30 win.
In prime-time, Clemson takes on Florida State (8 ET, ABC). The Seminoles are in a three-way tie atop the Atlantic, the Tigers just a game out. Clemson has been the poster boy for inconsistency this year, with soph QB Kyle Parker being up and down. The explosiveness of Andre Ellington, both in the backfield and on special teams makes them exciting, but I can't see them doing it in Tallahassee. Florida State runs the ball to well with Chris Thompson and Jermaine Thomas and that makes the difference as the 'Noles churn out a win.
Finally, let's set our sights on the top two teams in the country. Auburn hosts Georgia, a game that on the surface shouldn't give them any trouble. But how much does the distraction regarding alleged recruiting violations with Cam Newton affect the team? The Bulldogs are fighting for bowl eligibility and have played better football in the latter half of October and early November than they did early on. Aaron Murray is maturing at quarterback and has A.J. Green to make some big plays. They haven't done enough for me to pick an upset, and I think Auburn rallies around Newton and the home crowd to win this one fairly easy--but with one caveat. If this one's tight in the second half and its obvious Auburn looks distracted, then the Dawgs sneak away with the upset that seems to rattle the BCS every November.
Oregon has a much tougher game on hand with a visit to Cal. The Golden Bears are a different team at home, even more so than the natural college distinction. They can run the ball with Shane Vereen and keep the Duck offense off the field. The problem is that even with slowing the tempo, they still can't keep up with Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and Jeff Maehl's fearsome attack. I'll draw another cross-sport analogy. It's like a basketball team who takes on a 90-point per game run-and-gun machine, slows the tempo, but still loses 75-60. I see a similar result in Berkeley.
Image from tigerrag.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.