The Chick-fil-A Bowl features a matchup between No. 19 South Carolina and 23rd-ranked Florida State – teams that fell short in their respective conference championship games.
Still, it’s probably hard for many not to view this game as an extension of the rivalry between Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier and the Seminoles team he was so closely associated with during his tenure at Florida.
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Spurrier will again try to get the best of Florida State on New Year’s Eve at the Georgia Dome, only this time his counterpart will be first-year coach Jimbo Fisher instead of the legendary Bobby Bowden.
The Florida-Florida State rivalry was arguably the most intense of the 1990s, with the teams perennially among the best in the nation and often challenging for national championships as well as in-state bragging rights. The schools met 12 times during the decade – twice in the Sugar Bowl – with Bowden’s Seminoles holding a 7-4-1 advantage on Spurrier’s Gators.
There is certainly no love lost between Florida State and the often outspoken Spurrier, who coined the phrase “Free Shoes U” after the Seminoles were involved in a 1994 scandal.
This will be Spurrier’s first time coaching against Florida State since Florida’s 37-13 win in 2001.
“We’re fired up about it. Florida State is a great team,” Spurrier told his school’s official website. “It’s almost the exact same year they’ve had that we’ve had (at) 9-4 and (they) lost the conference championship game.”
Spurrier won six SEC titles at Florida and had a chance to add another to his lengthy resume as the Gamecocks (9-4) reached the conference title game for the first time. Cam Newton and unbeaten Auburn, however, proved too much at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 4, rolling to a 56-17 victory behind six total touchdowns from the Heisman Trophy winner.
Despite that loss, this has already been a successful season for South Carolina, which won nine games for the first time since 2001, including a victory over Alabama and the school’s first at Florida. The Gamecocks won a school-record 10 games in 1984.
“We’re excited about returning to Atlanta and playing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl,” Spurrier said. “If we’re ever going to win the SEC championship, we’re going to have to win a game in the Georgia Dome and this gives us another opportunity to play there.”
Despite Spurrier’s reputation as an offensive coach, his team’s biggest strength is a defense that entered the SEC title game leading the league in rushing yards allowed (107.2 per game) and sacks (27).
South Carolina’s offense revolves around freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, who ranks second in the SEC to Newton with 1,198 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. Alshon Jeffery is the leading target for quarterback Stephen Garcia, setting single-season school records for receptions (79) and yards (1,387).
Although he has weapons at his disposal, Garcia had an inconsistent season and struggled in the SEC championship game, going 16 of 28 for 170 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Lattimore figures to be very busy against a Florida State defense that allows 127.9 yards per game on the ground.
This was also a successful first year for Florida State (9-4) under Fisher, who guided the team to the ACC Atlantic Division title before a 44-33 loss to Virginia Tech on Dec. 4 prevented the Seminoles from their first conference crown since 2005.
EJ Manuel was picked off twice and had one returned for a touchdown as a game-time decision to fill in for regular quarterback Christian Ponder, who has been hindered by a right elbow injury.
“They drained some fluid off his elbow and it wasn’t fluid, it was blood,” Fisher said. “When you start draining blood you’ve got to be careful. It wasn’t going to jeopardize his future for one football game. It just needed rest. He was still sore.”
Ponder’s status for this game is uncertain. Doctors have been regularly draining fluid from his elbow throughout the second half of the season.
Whether it’s Ponder or Manuel under center, Florida State will likely need a more effective running game than what it displayed against the Hokies. The Seminoles were held to a season-worst 53 rushing yards after entering averaging 177.7.
Even an improved rushing attack, however, may not be enough if Fisher’s team struggles defensively again. Florida State surrendered 442 yards to Virginia Tech and allowed the Hokies to convert 13 of 18 on third down after yielding 36 total points during the previous three games – all wins.
Florida State has won six straight and 15 of 18 against South Carolina, including 38-10 in the most recent matchup in 1991.
South Carolina has lost three of four bowl games under Spurrier, the lone win coming against Houston in the 2006 Liberty.