The one time the Florida Gators maxed out on the gridiron this decade did not come from Urban Meyer in the 2010 season, his last in Gainesville.
It did not come from Jim McElwain, despite the fact that Mac is the only UF coach this decade to win the SEC East.
It did not come from Dan Mullen, even though Florida’s only New Year’s Six bowl win this decade (formerly known as a BCS bowl) was produced by Mullen last season against Michigan.
No, the best Florida football season this decade was authored by Will Muschamp, the man the Gators will face on Saturday in Columbia, South Carolina.
Yes, it is true that Muschamp’s tenure at Florida was generally a failure because of the rock-bottom nature of his other three seasons on the job. Yet, in 2012, everything fell into place for Muschamp. He not only crafted an 11-1 regular season which was accompanied by a top-five finish in the pre-bowl polls; he won in a manner Will Muschamp likes to win: with defense.
It figures, then, that Muschamp’s biggest win at South Carolina – knocking off No. 3 Georgia, Muschamp’s alma mater, Between the Hedges in Athens – was built by a defense which continued to make one big play after another.
The Gamecocks continued to bother Jake Fromm, and when a Georgia receiver bobbled a pass, South Carolina was there to pluck the interception and change the flow of the game.
It was a Muschamp masterpiece, forged in the face of all sorts of limitations, chiefly the injury to quarterback Ryan Hilinski. South Carolina had to survive on offense, avoiding a huge mistake, and then hope that its defense could continue to stand on its head and carry the team home.
That is exactly what happened.
South Carolina won without scoring a touchdown in overtime. It won in spite of a missed 33-yard field goal which would have won the game. It won despite the offense getting shut out in the second half of regulation.
It was the ugly kind of win which was common for Florida in 2012.
Muschamp is aiming for the best two-week sequence of his tenure as the Gamecocks’ head coach. Beating his alma mater, Georgia, and his former employer, Florida, in consecutive games would give Muschamp a set of memories to last a lifetime.
Winning these two games might also be enough to save his job.
Standing in the way are the Gators, who might be thinking about the plays they didn’t make against LSU, or dreaming about beating Georgia in a few weeks.
Florida can’t worry about what it failed to do, and it can’t win a game which hasn’t yet arrived on the schedule.
This game might define Will Muschamp’s future. It definitely defines Florida’s present-day reality.
The past several Florida teams – mostly under McElwain but also last year under Mullen – were prone to letdowns against one or two beatable teams on the schedule. If Florida is to return to the 2012 heights established by Muschamp, and to the high standard consistently set by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, this is the game Dan Mullen has to win.
Sure, everyone will focus on Georgia, a game whose importance requires no explanation. However, the difference between a decent 9-3 season and an excellent 11-1 season is built not just on beating Georgia, but on winning games such as this one.
Florida’s defense – smoked by Joe Burrow and LSU – now faces a much more manageable opponent when it lines up against the South Carolina offense Some teams are too good. LSU and Burrow are playing at an elite level The Gators just need to tip the cap to the Tigers. It happens.
That loss isn’t a bad loss, but it will be a much bigger problem if the Gators don’t learn from it. This South Carolina game will show of Florida can adjust and mentally reset, or if old demons are still haunting Gator football.
This game is defining for former Florida coach Will Muschamp. It will also define where the Gators stand, how well they carry themselves, and what they are capable of achieving this year.
Gators down stretch look very familiar
It sounds like an insult, but it’s not: Gators are McElwain 2.0
It does seem like an insult to say that the 2019 Florida Gators, under Dan Mullen, are a better version of Jim McElwain’s SEC East champion Florida teams. McElwain was not a beloved coach. He didn’t enjoy coaching at Florida. He didn’t handle the prominence or the pressure of the job very well.
Dan Mullen enjoys coaching the Gators. He relishes pressure. He has performed well in the SEC for a long time, as a head coach and offensive coordinator. He is so many of the things McElwain wasn’t.
Few men in college football scheme receivers open better than Dan Mullen. He has a gift for play calling, and he squeezed a lot out of his Mississippi State teams. One can very reasonably say that he took the Bulldogs as high as they could fly, as far as they could go.
That is pretty much what Mullen has done with this 2019 team.
He has had a backup quarterback for most of the year, not Feleipe Franks. He has had a below-average offensive line which simply cannot facilitate a consistent or especially productive running game.
He has had Jabari Zuniga, arguably his best defensive player, healthy for a tiny fraction of the season. Jon Greenard has been injured for multiple games as well.
Everywhere you look, Florida has been limited. Everywhere you look, Florida has not had the ideal players it would want to face Georgia and LSU.
Speaking of Georgia and LSU, Florida had to play those two teams this year. It also had to play Auburn and Miami and still has Florida State on the slate.
If you were to tell Mullen that he would have his best players within the context of an injury-free season, this 2019 course of events (in terms of wins and losses and style of play) would have been noticeably disappointing. Yet, given the injuries and the limitations, Florida being 6-2 in the SEC and 9-2 overall is pretty damn good.
Adjusted for circumstances, Florida has done as much as it realistically could have been expected to do. LSU is the best team in college football this regular season. Florida gave the Tigers a good test for three quarters and were outplayed in the fourth. There isn’t much more one could have asked from UF in that game.
The Georgia game was certainly a disappointment, but if you’re going to say that Florida and Georgia have the same levels of talent, please turn in your college football analyst card at the door.
That is not a credible assertion.
We can talk about recruiting in a separate conversation or column, but in 2019, Dan Mullen has coaxed a 9-2 record – likely to become 10-2 with a win over Florida State – from a limited roster with a lot of backups playing extended snaps at hugely important positions.
Florida is winning games without style points. It is managing situations and handling challenges.
Sound familiar? These were the two SEC East-winning seasons under McElwain, the only two seasons in this decade (which is about to end) when Florida went to Atlanta.
The 2019 Gators share the ragged, uneven quality of McElwain’s teams, but the coaching and adaptability are better. The number of losses is lower. The ceiling for the program is higher.
McElwain 2.0 feels like an insult, until you look below the surface and see what is truly being compared.
Georgia clinched SEC East- eliminated Gators Saturday night
Any hope the Florida Gators had of working their way back to Atlanta and the SEC Title game, through a potential backdoor, ended Saturday night. That’s when, the Georgia Bulldogs outfought their rival Auburn, 21 – 14 giving them a 6 – 1 record and the SEC East title for the third consecutive year.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Gators had done their part to set up a possible late season rally to win the division by smothering the Missouri Tigers on the road 23 – 6. That improved Florida to their final SEC record of 6 – 2. However, because they lost head-to-head 2 weeks ago to the Dawgs in Jacksonville, it meant the Gators had to have Georgia lose both of their remaining games, including next week at home with Texas A&M.
Georgia made sure that didn’t happen, as D’Andre Swift ran for 106 yards and Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm threw three touchdown passes. That included the eventual game-winner to tighten Eli Wolf from 5 yards out that put Georgia up 21 – 0 after three periods.
Auburn put together a tremendous rally behind freshman quarterback Bo Nix, who threw for 245 yards and a touchdown and ran for another TD to pull the Tigers within 21 – 14 with seven minutes to go.
Auburn got the ball back two times with chances to go and get a tying touchdown and both times, the Bulldogs held them on downs. The last one coming in the final minute of the game when Nix was sacked on fourth down inside his own 15-yard line to clinch the win and title for Georgia..
The Bulldogs, who were ranked fourth in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings still controls their own destiny to the playoff by winning out and winning the SEC title game. Of course, likely standing in their way is that top-ranked LSU, who is unbeaten heading into play Saturday night and will be the other team trying to make the final four.
The best case scenario now for the Gators is to win their remaining game with rival FSU at the Swamp in two weeks and then look to be in a possible “New Year Six” game, most likely the Cotton Bowl.
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