GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For the second year in a row, a handful of Florida players recruited to Gainesville by Will Muschamp will go up against their former coach Saturday in Columbia, S.C.
There will be hugs and handshakes after the game again, but mostly the Gators would like to repeat the outcome after beating Muschamp’s Gamecocks 20-7 in The Swamp a year ago.
“I mean, yeah, we’ve got to beat him. Can’t lose to ‘Champ, right?” redshirt junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan said.
Bryan joked that he might take a more involved role in the preparations this week.
“I’m excited to play Muschamp. Obviously, he was my original coach. I still got his playbooks. I may pass that out. I’m sure not much has changed. So, look forward to that,” Bryan said.
At this point, anything that might spark more motivation out of this reeling Gators team is a good thing. Florida has lost four straight games, each defeat looking worse than the one before it, including the dismal performance last week in a 45-16 defeat at Missouri.
Interim coach Randy Shannon, for one, expects a different attitude and performance from his team this week.
He also appreciates the connection to Muschamp, who went 28-21 over four seasons at Florida before being let go after the 2014 campaign.
“It’s a lot of feelings and stuff that [are)]part of this game,” Shannon said. “A lot of guys will go out and hug Muschamp. … Guys are going to do that. You don’t take anything away from young men who were recruited by another opponent. Some coaches get, ‘Ah, he shouldn’t do that.’ No. That guy spent a lot of time putting faith in the guy that recruited him to come to Florida. He gets the right to go over there and hug him, shake his hand. But now when the time for football comes on, he’s going to turn another switch and compete for the Florida Gators and compete against South Carolina.”
Meanwhile, Muschamp’s replacement at Florida is already gone. Jim McElwain lasted just two and a half seasons before being unceremoniously ousted two weeks ago.
While the Gators (3-5, 3-4 SEC) look for yet another coach, Muschamp has South Carolina (6-3, 4-3 SEC) on the rise in his second season behind sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley.
While Muschamp has moved on well from his time at Florida and the Gators are eager to move on from his successor, it only seems apropos this week to compare the short and shorter tenures of Muschamp and McElwain in Gainesville.
They were eerily similar.
- Both had some degree of early success that was couched by concerns about the quarterback. After a 7-6 debut, Muschamp led Florida to an 11-2 finish and Sugar Bowl appearance in his second season, but fans wondered if Jeff Driskel could take his game to the next level. McElwain led Florida to back-to-back SEC East titles to start his tenure, but he rolled through four QBs in the process, leaving many concerned about the lack of progress at the position.
- Their ultimate demise began with a respectable start to their third season. Muschamp started 4-1 (with a loss to Miami) in 2013 before losing seven straight games to end the season. McElwain started 3-1 this fall (with a loss to Michigan) and would have been 4-1 if the game with Northern Colorado wasn’t cancelled by a hurricane. Now the Gators have lost four straight and could well end the season on a similar slide to that 2013 team.
- Injuries demolished both rosters in those disappointing seasons. Florida has at least 15 players out this week — not including the nine suspended players. Both Muschamp’s 2013 team and McElwain’s final team also used three quarterbacks while searching for answers.
- Under both Muschamp and McElwain, the Gators failed to finish a season higher than 96th nationally in yards per game — and it’s a safe bet to remain true this year as they rank 111th. The program cracked the top 70 in scoring offense just once these last seven years, in Muschamp’s final 2014 season. This season, the Gators are 113th out of 129 FBS teams in scoring offense (20.6 points per game).
- One main difference is that Muschamp’s defenses remained elite throughout his tenure while the Gators have now given up at least 42 points in back-to-back games while tumbling to 78th nationally in points allowed (28.4 per game).
- The other is that Muschamp, who had a better relationship with the athletic administration, was allowed to return for a fourth year despite that 4-8 debacle, going 6-5 in 2014. McElwain was shown the door at the first chance Florida had to part ways, barely making it halfway through his third season.
In the end, both coaches left the program with plenty of questions for their successor to answer.
The argument can be made that Muschamp left the roster in better shape than McElwain. The offensive line was in disarray, but Muschamp left the Gators with a stacked defense and QB Will Grier, who could well have been the answer to the program’s ongoing woes at the position if not for the PED suspension and ultimate transfer to West Virginia.
McElwain leaves behind a young and unproven defense, some notable offensive skill players and the hope that 2018 QB recruit Matt Corral follows through on his commitment and the expectations many have for him.
That said, McElwain left the overall program in better shape with the facility upgrades (indoor practice facility, plans for a standalone football complex and upgraded amenities) he coerced during his short tenure and the additions to the recruiting and support staff that improved the general infrastructure of the program.
But ultimately, both left the Gators quicker than expected without delivering on expectations.
Seeing Muschamp on the other sideline Saturday may be nostalgic for the players he recruited to Florida, but probably not so much for the Gators fans who are simply ready for the next head coach to try to do what the last two couldn’t.