KICKOFF: Saturday, 12 p.m. ET
GAME DATE: 9/28/13
SITE: BH Networks Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
SERIES: South Carolina is 3-0 against Central Florida, including a 24-15 win in the last meeting in 2005.
AP RANKINGS: South Carolina, No. 12
KEYS TO THE GAME
South Carolina began preparation for a hot Central Florida team that will prove to be a tougher challenge than when the game was scheduled. Coming off a solid Southeastern Conference victory over Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks, ranked 12th in the Associated Press and 13th in the USA Today coaches' poll, are ready to prove they are up for the challenge. Both teams are coming off of bye weeks.
USC used the off time to heal and work on self-improvement more than anything, as the squad hopes to get better in many areas, with defense and special teams leading the way. The squad ranks last in punting and has done little in either the punt- or kickoff-return categories. Despite holding its second team to fewer than 300 yards of total offense, the Gamecocks' defense will have a challenge against the Knights, who enter the game with a 3-0 record, including a road win over Penn State.
"They're a very good team," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of Central Florida. "They sort of clobbered that Akron team that almost beat Michigan at 'The Big House.' They beat them 38-7 or something like that. They're solid. It's not like they luckily beat Penn State. I think (ESPN analyst) Lee Corso picked them to win, so it wasn't a huge upset that they went up there and beat Penn State. I think we all understand that. They're a very good team overall.
"(UCF) Coach (George) O'Leary has been there quite a while and is an excellent coach, excellent system. It's going to be a tough game."
The Gamecocks have been solid on offense, led by quarterback Connor Shaw, who has gotten off to a fast start. He ranks in the top five in the SEC in passing and is second on the team in rushing. The senior's performance has begun to catch the eye of rival SEC coaches.
"Connor Shaw was really impressive," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said after his team's 35-25 loss to the Gamecocks. "Everyone knows what a talented runner he is, but he had the most impressive first half throwing the football as any quarterback I've seen since entering the league."
The running game has also been strong with sophomore Mike Davis averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game, and backup Brandon Wilds has also been solid.
Saturday will mark the first time the receiving corps has been together and healthy, as leading receiver Bruce Ellington had his best game of the season with eight catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Nick Jones has been solid throughout the campaign, leading the team with three scoring receptions.
UCF already has knocked off Penn State as part of its 3-0 start, the first for the team since 1988. Back then, UCF was competing in Division II and the total enrollment at the school was 18,150. Twenty-five years later, the total enrollment at UCF has more than tripled and the Knights are a FBS team.
Louisville remains the unquestioned favorite in the American Athletic Conference. But that favorite status won't look nearly as solid if UCF can knock off the Gamecocks.
It's also UCF's first game ever on national television, with ABC broadcasting this non-conference matchup.
The anticipation for this game is running very high. With UCF being off the week before, it has allowed extra preparation time for the Golden Knights to face the SEC contender, and it has allowed two weeks' worth of hype for the eagerly anticipated game. The contest at Bright House Networks Stadium is sold out.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--LB Cedrick Cooper impressed and excited Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward back in spring practice. Ward thought the 6-foot-2, 218-pound sophomore weak-side linebacker gave his defense something no one else on the squad could. He is fast, athletic and tough, not to mention a vocal leader. But early in fall practice, Cooper hyperextended his arm, which forced him to miss most of the practice, as well as the Gamecocks' initial three games. He is slated to return on Saturday, and while he probably won't start, Ward plans to not only quickly work him into the rotation but also change his position. "Cedrick will be back," Ward said. "I think (whether or not he starts) is to be determined. I also think we might move him to MIKE linebacker. We need help there. (Freshman) Jonathan (Walton) is hurt right now, and we need to get more physical at that spot."
--DE Chaz Sutton has struggled with a foot injury throughout the season but has played well. He has managed to fight through the pain to pick up 4 1/2 tackles for loss, including 1 1/2 sacks. He has worn a boot during the week, taking it off just to practice. "Some days it feels better than others," Sutton said. "The off week definitely came at a good time." Sutton and the remainder of the defensive line displayed improvement against Vanderbilt, but they will have to find a way to pressure Central Florida QB Blake Bortles, who is averaging more than 280 passing yards per game.
--RB Mike Davis likes to say he runs angry. If that is the case, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier hopes he remains in a bad mood. After rushing for more than 100 yards in each of the Gamecocks' first two games, he managed only 77 yards on 17 carries in the win over Vanderbilt. He made up for that, however, with three catches for 67 yards. He leads the team with 341 rushing yards and three touchdowns this season and has displayed improved blocking ability. For the USC offense to remain effective, he must continue to be a force on the ground.
--QB Blake Bortles has been tremendous, completing 50 of 70 passes through three games and connecting on seven touchdowns with only one interception. Bortles is fifth nationally in passer ratings (199.5) and has thrown a touchdown in 11 consecutive games.
--LB Terrance Plummer has been UCF's leading tackler in each of its first three games in 2013, and with 28 stops, he's the only Golden Knight on the squad with at least 20 tackles. Plummer remains a key playmaker and emotional leader as UCF enters a portion of the schedule that includes games against highly ranked South Carolina and Louisville.
--RB Storm Johnson has six rushing touchdowns, posted the best game of his career against Penn State with 117 rushing yards and now faces a huge challenge going against the Gamecocks' formidable defensive line. Coach George O'Leary said he has been impressed with Johnson's improved vision, as well as his ability to pick up blocks in pass protection.