SPORTS LIBRARY, South Carolina, USC, football, helmet

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's ability to cruise to a victory over Florida Saturday, or be forced to gut out another close SEC win, may come down to one key question: Can the Gamecocks effectively run the football?

The South Carolina rushing offense, second to last in the conference in yards per game, went through a stretch of improved performances against the defenses of Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt in a three-game winning streak.

But starting with Georgia this past weekend, the Gamecocks have now hit a stretch of the schedule where they're facing defenses in three of the final four weeks that were able to shut down their running game last season.

In those three straight wins, Carolina averaged just over 188 rushing yards and nearly 38 rushes per game for an average of exactly five yards per carry.

Looking back at Carolina's two other best rushing performances of the season, it collected 143 yards on the ground against Louisiana Tech and 172 rushing yards against Missouri. Not coincidentally, both of those were wins as well.

With the season-opening win at N.C. State as the lone exception, when the Gamecocks have had success on the ground, they've won, and when they haven't, they've lost.

Against a talented N.C. State front, Carolina rushed for just 31 yards on 21 carries (1.48 average) but made enough big plays in the passing game and used a Deebo Samuel kickoff return for touchdown to outscore the Wolfpack.

Taking out the N.C. State win as an outlier, South Carolina has rushed for 176 yards per game in its other five wins (152 if you include N.C. State) on 4.76 yards per carry.

Looking at the Gamecocks' three losses, they rushed for 54 yards on 20 carries against Kentucky, 23 yards on 26 carries at Texas A&M, and 43 yards on 17 carries at Georgia this past weekend. That's an average of 40 yards per game and 1.9 yards per carry.

For comparison sake, the Gamecocks rushed for 30 yards on 26 carries against Georgia last year.

Can they run it against Florida on Saturday?

They'll certainly have to perform better against the Gators this year than last when the Florida front suffocated Carolina all game long and allowed just 43 yards on 30 carries.

Football is, of course, a game of matchups.

It's no coincidence that the Gamecocks' backs were able to find room to run against Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- three of the bottom four defenses in the conference, statistically, in stopping the run.

Likewise, few should be surprised that there wasn't much space against a suffocating Georgia front that allows just 89 rushing yards per game and 3.06 yards per carry.

The good news for the Gamecocks?

A Florida defense that allowed just 144 rushing yards per game last season has taken a step back in 2017 and allows 173 this season.

Granted, some of the Gators' big rushing games allowed have come against the likes of Georgia, LSU and Michigan -- teams that run the ball very well in the first place. But Missouri was able to hammer the Gators for 227 yards on 46 carries last week in their first game without coach Jim McElwain.

The more glaring difference year-over-year comes when looking at the yards per carry allowed -- up to 4.59 this season from just 3.84 last.

That's good for 10th in the conference, just ahead of -- you guessed it -- Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas.

South Carolina will look to have similar success on the ground Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium against the struggling Gators as it did against those three.

If it does, it should be a good day for the Gamecocks.

Hurst honored

The John Mackey Award has named Hayden Hurst of South Carolina as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week. The Southeastern Conference junior had seven receptions for a career high 93 yards vs. Georgia.

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