COLUMBIA, S.C. — Will Muschamp knew what was coming.
The South Carolina coach, who coached at Florida from 2011-14, fielded questions Sunday for the first time leading up to the Gamecocks’ Saturday trip to Gainesville (noon ET, CBS). So he commented on Florida before the questions began during his weekly Sunday night teleconference.
“I have tremendous respect for the university and the program,” Muschamp said. “I grew up in Gainesville, I grew up a Gator. I got tremendous respect for (Florida athletic director) Jeremy Foley and (former president Bernie) Machen and the wonderful opportunity they gave us to be at the University of Florida. We’ve got great memories and we’ve got great friends that are still friends to this day, that we stay in touch with and we talk to a lot. In this profession, if you don’t win enough games, you get fired. That’s part of it. There’s no hard feelings. Not animosity. No grudge. It’s part of our profession.”
The trajectory since Muschamp’s firing after a 2014 game has led to Saturday. He was fired after going 28-21 in four years at Florida and spent a year at Auburn as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. In December, he was hired to take over the South Carolina program after Steve Spurrier resigned as the USC coach in the middle of the 2016 season.
On Saturday, Muschamp will lead South Carolina into play on Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, returning to Gainesville for the first time since he was dismissed.
“Obviously, you would like to go win the game,” Muschamp said. “If anybody knows me, they know this game is really important to me because of the players and the University of South Carolina. That’s No. 1. That’s the way it’s going to be for me. I know that’s boring and you don’t wanna hear that, but that’s the way I feel.”
On paper, the story line seems anything but boring. Saturday will be senior day for the Gators, a class of players recruited by Muschamp. He said Sunday that he had not heard from any of his former Florida players and was not sure how he would handle pregame and postgame come Saturday.
“We will cross that bridge when it comes,” Muschamp said. “I haven’t thought about it much. I haven’t heard from anybody. Seeing those guys on the field and having been in their living rooms and recruited them and all of that — I didn’t realize it was going to be senior day that day. It’s their last home game. There’s some great young men on that football team.”
The game runs deeper than just Muschamp vs. his former team, though. The Gamecocks are 5-4 (3-4 SEC) and still barely alive in the SEC East title race, thanks to a Georgia win against Kentucky on Saturday. The Gamecocks need a win against Florida to keep those hopes alive. A win also would secure a bowl berth for the Gamecocks, as it would double their win total from the 2015 season.
“My emphasis for our team is to take the next step in our program with our team,” Muschamp said. “That’s go beat a good football team on the road.”