For 12 years, Steve Spurrier roamed the sideline at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium where he built Florida into a national powerhouse and led the Gators to six SEC championships and a national title in 1996.
He nicknamed Florida Field "The Swamp" and made it one of the most difficult places in the nation to play.
Now the man who gave so much to Florida, as a coach and Heisman Trophy-winning player, returns to Gainesville tonight, intent on taking something away: a shot at the SEC title.
In a winner-take-all game, Florida plays Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks for the East Division championship.
Florida has represented the East in the SEC Championship Game 10 times since division play began in 1992. Spurrier is trying to lead South Carolina to its first SEC East title in school history.
The Head Ball Coach will match wits against Urban Meyer, the sixth-year Gators coach who has led UF to two national titles.
Meyer loved watching the Gators under Spurrier (1990-2001) and credits him as one of the reasons he took the job in 2005. The two are now good friends, with the exception of about four hours Saturday when the legend returns in search of more glory at Florida Field.
The checkers game
Florida coach Urban Meyer is fond of saying big games come down to one simple thing: your checkers vs. mine and who has the best pieces and makes the best moves. With that in mind, here are a few of the key pieces on the board:
• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore vs. Florida's defensive front: In their three losses, the Gators could not stop the run. Florida gave up 170, 161 and 212 yards to Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State, respectively. Lattimore is second in the league in rushing and has run for more than 150 yards twice this season. "We know that stopping the run was a huge problem in our three losses, so we've been working hard on that all week," senior defensive tackle Terron Sanders said. "We have to stop the run first."
• South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery vs. Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins: Jeffery leads the SEC and is fifth in Division I-A in receiving yards per game (114.9). Jenkins has been the Gators' best weapon against big-time receivers, including Alabama's Julio Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green. Meyer said the obvious issue is Jeffery's size (6 feet 4) and speed. The Gamecocks' other big threat, Tori Gurley, is 6-5. Jenkins is 5-11 and has relished the role of taking on bigger, faster receivers.
• Florida's up-tempo offense vs. South Carolina's defense: The Gators have averaged 465 yards per game on offense since instituting its hybrid version of the no-huddle offense. Florida is desperate to establish the run early so it can set up its passing game. Why? Because the Gamecocks are last in the league in pass defense, allowing 264.7 yards via the air.
Garcia's grand stage
Former Jefferson High star Stephen Garcia's tenure as Steve Spurrier's starting quarterback has been tumultuous. Like most QBs under Spurrier, at times it has been love-hate. This week, when asked about Garcia, Spurrier declined to comment: "It seems like every time I talk about Stephen somebody says I've been critical of him. So I've sort of decided, all you guys, you watch the games, you see how he plays and you guys talk about him however you would like."
Spurrier and South Carolina made Garcia off-limits to the media this week, and his father, Gary, politely declined to comment as well, saying he was following the school's wishes.
But there's no denying the magnitude of the game for Garcia. The last time he was in Gainesville, he played sparingly behind Chris Smelley and went 6-of-13 for 28 yards and one interception. Now he returns to his home state as the undisputed starter and has the opportunity to bring his team its first championship in school history. Although Garcia is coming off a poor performance in a loss to Arkansas (14-of-29 for 161 yards, two interceptions), when he plays well, South Carolina is hard to stop. He is fifth in Division I-A in passing efficiency (167.96), and this season he became the fifth quarterback in South Carolina history to top 5,000 career passing yards. He's also a threat to run, and Florida's players said his toughness stands out on film.
Brantley, Burton and Reed
No, it's not a law firm you should call if you're injured in an accident. Instead it's the trio of quarterbacks Florida is using to power its offense. After its offense struggled in six out of the first seven games, the Gators have implemented a three-quarterback system that so far has succeeded. John Brantley, top, is the starter, the drop-back passer. Trey Burton, middle, operates the wildcat formation and plays some receiver. Jordan Reed is the single-wing quarterback, a threat to run. He also plays tight end.
For Steve Spurrier, the coach who became infamous for using two quarterbacks, including at different times in the same series, the idea isn't so far-fetched. "They are three good players, they all have their specialties," Spurrier said. "Coach Urban and his guys are trying to maximize the talents of this team, so I can certainly understand it."
Still Spurrier's home
Although he has been gone since 2001, Steve Spurrier's presence remains a constant around UF's football facility.
Senior center Mike Pouncey said Spurrier will forever command the respect of all Gators.
"Personally, I love Coach Spurrier," Pouncey said. "He's one of the only head coaches I wait for, that I really like meeting after the games. I try and meet him after every game, just because of his history here at Florida. He's a great coach, and he's a great guy."
Florida and South Carolina have been in a similar position before. They met in 2005, with the Gators having an opportunity to go to the SEC Championship Game, but UF lost 30-22, ending a 14-game winning streak against South Carolina. And Florida has also ruined South Carolina's title hopes before. In 2000, while Steve Spurrier was at Florida, the Gamecocks needed a win over the Gators to advance to the SEC title game, but Spurrier's team defeated the Gamecocks 41-21.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.