Chick-Fil-A Bowl Preview: South Carolina Gamecocks vs. Florida State Seminoles

Chick-fil-a_bowl_medium

The South Carolina Gamecocks take on the Florida State Seminoles in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, tomorrow night at 7:30 Eastern.  Can Florida State upset the Gamecocks and take home a Peach Bowl victory?  

Both teams enter with 9-4 records after finishing the regular season at 9-3 and losing conference championship games to superior teams (Auburn and Virginia Tech).  South Carolina is at the pinnacle of a rebuilding effort under Steve Spurrier and is shooting for 10 wins for the first time in seemingly forever.  Florida State is looking to cap its first year of an excellent year one of rebuilding under Jimbo Fisher.  

South Carolina is a 3.5-point favorite in the contest, having been the slightly better team over the course of the season and having fewer injury concerns.  

Storylines abound for this game as Steve Spurrier, long-time coach of the Florida Gators takes on the Seminoles once again.  Spurrier is perhaps more tolerable now that he isn't at a rival school, but many FSU fans still have an intense dislike for the coach who whined to officials about hits on his quarterback and coined the phrase  "Free Shoes University."

This is a matchup of two excellent offenses, one very good defense (South Carolina), and one average defense (Florida State).  On the fast track of the Georgia Dome, big plays can be expected.

Florida State's Defense Against South Carolina's Offense

I have to admit I didn't watch too much South Carolina this year.  But one of our friends in the business did:  ShakinTheSouthland.  Again, I encourage you to visit STS for all types of great football analysis.  

QB
5 Stephen Garcia 6-2 227 JR- has had a very nice season for an excellent South Carolina offense.  Mobile QB with a nice arm, runs hot and cold.  

RB
21 Marcus Lattimore 6-0 218 FR- Best RB FSU has faced all season
10 Brian Maddox 5-11 229 SR- quality multi-purpose guy
31 Kenny Miles 5-10 192 SO

FB
47 Patrick DiMarco 6-1 243 SR- versatile H-Back 
10 Brian Maddox 5-11 229 JR- multi-purpose back

WR
1 Alshon Jeffery 6-4 233 SO- Best receiver FSU has faced all year. 
81 Tori Gurley 6-5 230 SO- Excellent possession receiver.
9 Ace Sanders 5-7 166 FR- Short, fast, and used on reverses. 
82 D.L. Moore 6-4 211
4 Jason Barnes 6-4 211 JR

TE
47 Patrick DiMarco 6-1 243 SR
7 Justice Cunningham 6-3 268 SO

OL
68 Kyle Nunn 6-5 304 JR
77 Garrett Chisolm 6-6 303 SR Terrence Caampbell 6-3 305 JR 
55 T.J. Johnson 6-4 302 SO
73 Rokevious Watkins 6-4 325 JR
66 Hutch Eckerson 6-4 281 SR

South Carolina's offense is best described as "multiple" in every sense of the word. You will see a wide array of formations out of the Gamecocks week in and week out. You will also see a variety of play types out of each of these formations meaning that the defense has less of an opportunity to anticipate the play via pre-snap reads. South Carolina also has a good core group of skills players and a much improved offensive line which has caused problems for opponents this season.

Florida State allowed 91 combined points to offenses of South Carolina's caliber

South Carolina will show lots of looks in the gun and under center. Don't be surprised to see balanced four wide sets, trips looks, and even empty sets from the Cocks out of the gun. Conversely, SC has utilized some I and offset I looks to date under center. Carolina mixes up plays out of these formations well. They are not afraid to run the ball out of the gun and will throw the ball from any of the aforementioned looks.

South Carolina has to run the ball to be successful. Marcus Lattimore came in and gave the Gamecocks a quality rusher who has shown he can carry the ball 30+ times if necessary. South Carolina runs the ball well out of all their formations. This allows this team to keep opponents on their heels and respect the pass/run option the SC play caller has. They use Lattimore's body control and vision to establish a quality run game and take pressure off of QB Stephen Garcia. South Carolina's zone blocking schemes have been well received by Lattimore. He has done a nice job cutting back across the formation to gash defenses for huge amounts of yards.

Out of the "I" and offset "I", South Carolina runs Lattimore all over the formation. We have seen USC run between the tackles, off tackle, sweep plays, and even  pitch the ball on a quisi-version of the option. South Carolina has done a very good job this season in the red zone, pounding the ball when necessary and relying on Lattimore's ability to run hard to get tough yards. You will also see one of Spurrier's favorite run plays, the sprint draw throughout the football game.

South Carolina runs zone read plays out of the gun and a wide array of draw plays. Do not be surprised to see quite a few handoffs out of the gun. Carolina gets their backs the ball on designed inside and outside running plays along with the delayed handoffs that you expect to see out of the gun. South Carolina has incorporated receivers into designed carries, running reverses and end around type plays throughout the season.

Carolina's passing attack has roughly three levels. Jeffery is the homerun hitter, Tori Gurley has made quite a few intermediate length catches particularly across the middle of the field, and Marcus Lattimore has been used extensively catching the ball out of the backfield.

South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery is dangerous and can go up and make big, tough grabs for huge chunks of yards. Jeffery has had a lot of success catching fade routes down the sideline/in the end zone and does a good job getting open on corner/flag routes. Jeffery is so good because he goes up and attacks the football and makes extremely tough catches, often one-handed. If you see Stephen Garcia lob the ball up down the sideline you can almost bet he is tossing the ball in Jeffery's direction.

Gurley is a guy who's big catches have crippled opponents over the middle or at times when he has found week spots in zone coverage. He is a guy that SC has used to help move the chains at critical portions of football games and he has responded with multiple big catches, of which a couple have gone for monster gains.

Marcus Lattimore is more than a safety valve for the passing offense. Carolina likes to run a lot of screens to Lattimore AND likes to hit him out of the backfield on little angle and flair routes. This is a guy who is able to make a catch in near-open field conditions and turn those short passes into big gains by utilizing his blockers and making nifty moves in traffic and in the open field.

South Carolina has already played six games against better defenses than the 'Noles.

For Florida State to have success this weekend, the Seminoles will first need to shut down Carolina's running game. Stephen Garcia is a different quarterback when removed from the role of game controller and relied upon to be the game changer with big plays. It is imperative Florida State not allow Carolina to methodically move the football. In SC's best games this season, the Cocks have been able to convert third downs and hold on to the football for extended periods of time. FSU has to force punts and, by doing such, will limit the carries by Lattimore. The 'Noles also cannot allow Alshon Jeffery to kill them deep. This will be a tough chore as this young man has made a lot of great catches against near perfect coverage and/or after being interfered with.

This will be a very difficult task for Florida State.  There is hope that Florida State's baby front (seven sophomores/ freshmen) will benefit from the layoff and perhaps regain its legs.  Florida State will need a big game from Redshirt-Freshman Xavier Rhodes against both of Carolina's 6'5" receivers.  Florida State will look to roll coverage away from Rhodes.  Yes, that could have disastrous results, but FSU doesn't really have much chance of stopping South Carolina if it doesn't help the other side.  That help will likely come from Terrance Parks, as safety Nick Moody will be playing down in the box to help against the run. Lattimore really is a great runner who effectively uses his blocks and spies the cutback lanes.  The linebackers must effectively scrape down the line in design with the scheme to not open up those lanes.  

Auburn was able to limit Lattimore and Arkansas played a good game against the Cocks, forcing some critical turnovers.  Clemson played them very well.  But as noted above, South Carolina has already played six games against much better defenses than what FSU has to offer.  If FSU can slow Lattimore down or get an early lead, it has a chance not to get torched on defense.

FSU will likely sit in cover three and focus on the run and the deep pass, making South Carolina pick the 'Noles to death via the short pass.  The Gamecocks are pretty good at the short stuff, but not quite as good as they are at the deep balls and the run game.  In a game of pick-your-poison, this is the best choice for FSU.

But Florida State played two offenses of this quality or better so far (Oklahoma and Virginia Tech) and they combined for 91 points.  If Florida State is ready to take on an offense of this caliber, it has not shown it.  With an entire season of games, it seems FSU's defense should not be expected to have success against an offense of this caliber.  There are some things which FSU can control in this game, like how much the defense sells out to stop Lattimore.  I'll be looking to see if they can control those aspects.  And there are some things FSU cannot control, including whether QB Garcia is just having "one of those days", or Alshon Jeffrey making circus catches despite excellent coverage.

I'll project South Carolina to run about 70 plays at 6 yards-per-play.  

Inside, I'll discuss the other side of things. 

Florida State's Offense Against South Carolina's Defense

As you saw above, Florida State's offense is tremendous and South Carolina's defense is very good as well.  

DE 98 Devin Taylor 6-7 249 SO  Very good pass rusher, not great against the run.
DT 42 Travian Robertson 6-4 293 JR Excellent DT
DT 91 Ladi Ajiboye 6-1 290 Good leverage
DE 83 Cliff Matthews 6-4 268 SR  All-American

MLB 41 Josh Dickerson 6-1 225 SR Run stuffer
WLB 44 Tony Straughter 6-0 201 SR

SPur 26 Antonio Allen 6-2 205 JR Versatile hybrid player
CB 5 Stephon Gilmore 6-1 189 SO Tremendous corner
S 3 Akeem Auguste 5-10 191 JR Good cover safety
S 36 D.J. Swearinger 5-11 201 SO Decent player
CB 12 C.C. Whitlock 5-10 178 JR Liability

For a great breakdown of South Carolina's defense please read this.

How does South Carolina's defense compare to defenses already faced by the 'Noles?  

Florida State's offense is very underrated, having played the most difficult schedule of defenses in the country. 

The importance of a healthy Christian Ponder here cannot be understated due to the very complex defense of the Gamecocks. Ponder is a master of pre-snap reads and audibles.  Jimbo Fisher says he expects Ponder to play, but you never know how the elbow will be.  Ponder may be able to catch South Carolina in some looks and hit them for some big plays.  

If Ponder doesn't go, it will be the promising 3rd-year sophomore EJ Manuel.  Manuel is a capable thrower, but he will likely use his legs more than Ponder will.  Manuel is a better designed runner, while Ponder is a better scrambler with better pocket presence.  

The battle up front will be interesting to watch.  Florida State's left tackle Andrew Datko likely needs work done on both shoulders and hasn't been able to practice in quite a while.  He'll likely still be capable in pass protection, but how much he can offer in the run game is yet to be seen.  Cliff Matthews at 268 lbs will be a tall task for Datko.  All-American right guard Rodney Hudson should do well against Travian Robertson and should be able to stay with the smaller linebackers of South Carolina.  I expect USCe to play some odd-fronts to occupy center Ryan McMahon, as he sometimes struggles with a guy in his face.  Right guard is an enormous question and Florida State has played five different guys at the position.  Bryan Stork will get the call and the freshman has played about how one would expect a freshman to play.   Right Tackle Zebrie Sanders will match up with Delvin Taylor and will be counted on to get good push against Taylor who is more pass rusher than run stopper.

 

 

Like Florida State's offense, South Carolina's defense is extremely underrated thanks to playing a ridiculous schedule of offenses.  South Carolina has faced the most difficult set of offenses in the country.

South Carolina doesn't like to blitz a whole lot this year and relies heavily on its front four to generate pressure.  That's another reason why having Ponder will be important.  If, and it's a big if, but if Florida State's banged up offensive front can hold up in pass protection against the Gamecocks' front four, Ponder should be able to identify the blitzes and call them out like he did in the Florida game.   

If Ponder doesn't play, expect Fisher to run Manuel more in order to draw the extra safety down and simplify coverage.  I would attempt to attack Whitlock if South Carolina is dumb enough to leave him in man coverage without help over the top.  That's unlikely to happen however, as the Gamecocks typically roll coverage away from Gilmore, the talented corner on the other side.  

I expect FSU to run 65 plays at 6.25 yards-per-play, for about 400 yards.  

 

Prediction:  I give Florida State a fair chance of winning this game at 40%.  South Carolina is the better team and has been so all season. Given that evaluation, and the injury situation for Florida State, it would be foolish of me to give the 'Noles a better than even chance of winning this contest.  

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