Conventional wisdom says that South Carolina is little more than a tune-up game for the 3rd ranked Florida Gators before they enter the meat of their 2020 schedule.
After all, South Carolina is an eighteen point underdog in the Swamp. After all, they are coached by Will Muschamp, a widely presumed dead man walking who, fair or not, has developed a habit of coaching teams that lose games in every way imaginable, and then when they’ve exhausted the pool of imaginable ways to lose, they’ll create some new ones. After all, Florida is led by the super-accurate Kyle Trask, who’s known to pick apart even the best defenses, and the walking coverage mismatch Kyle Pitts. And after all, Florida does have bigger fish to fry in their ten game SEC slate, namely high-stakes rematches with Georgia and LSU, the only teams to ever defeat Trask, and even Texas A&M next week.
But that’s all precisely the kind of rhetoric that led to South Carolina’s shocking upset of Georgia in Athens last year. Though I try not to write about things that are extremely unlikely to happen- which a South Carolina victory over Florida definitely is- such a result in Gainesville tomorrow could capsize the Gators’ season before it even begins.
Let’s start with what we know. Muschamp has recruited about as well as anybody not named Spurrier can to South Carolina. There’s some top-tier SEC talent sprinkled into their depth chart, if sporadically. Guys like DE Jordan Burch, corner Jaycee Horn and receiver Shi Smith were all sought after by the likes of Alabama and Clemson in their recruitment processes, and have each done things to at least somewhat justify their hype so far in Columbia. The Florida players who will directly match up against them- tackles Stone Forsythe and Jean DeLance, wide receiver Trevon Grimes and tight end Kyle Pitts, and cornerbacks Marco Wilson and Kaiir Elam, respectively- will have to prepare for and then play them like they would their respective counterparts at Alabama or Clemson.
Despite his relative success on the recruiting trail, though, Muschamp is starting to run out of time at his second SEC head coaching job. A humiliating 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl to cap an up-and-down 2018 campaign was followed by a disastrous 4-8 season in 2019 (in which I’ll again point out that they somehow upset #3 Georgia) and now, with a ten game SEC-only schedule on tap for 2020, the Gamecocks could easily be looking at 2-8 or even 1-9 unless they win some games they aren’t supposed to. Like, say, tomorrow against Florida- the team Muschamp grew up rooting for and once coached.
It’s well documented by now, but in case you need a refresher (or are relatively young), Muschamp was raised in Gainesville and went to a lot of Gator games as a kid. He wanted to play safety for Florida, but Spurrier wasn’t interested and he wound up playing for Georgia as a walk-on. He then went into coaching, rising up the ranks as a young defensive coordinator commodity under Nick Saban at LSU before moving on to the Miami Dolphins with him and then to Texas under Mack Brown, where he was named the head-coach-in-waiting. But then-Florida AD Jeremy Foley beat Texas to the punch and hired him to replace Urban Meyer.
It soon became clear that Muschamp, as the kids say, “wasn’t it,” and he was fired at Florida midway into his fourth season. He then moved west to take the defensive coordinator job at Auburn, and after one so-so season, rebounded and got a second chance in the SEC East at South Carolina. But after a promising 9-4 record in his second season, things quickly turned south for him and now he finds himself sporting an ugly 26-26 record as the Gamecocks’ coach and facing a slippery uphill battle to save his job. Sound vaguely familiar?
That’s not to say that a loss tomorrow will cost Will Muschamp his job. It probably won’t unless the Gamecocks look completely disinterested and lose by 50 points. He’ll probably get the rest of the season and may even come back next season if his team fights its way to four or five wins. But in one form or another, he’s approaching the juncture where he’ll have too much ground to make up and not enough time to make it up in.
His response to pieces like that would probably be that he doesn’t want the ink wasted on him. He’ll say it’s about his players, he’s not worried about his job security, and that his only focus is on the program (a word he insists on pronouncing as “pro-grum”). If his “pro-grum” doesn’t start winning some games, though, and fast, he won’t have to worry about it. Coordinators don’t get the same kind of media attention that head coaches do, and if this season comes off the rails, that’s likely what he’ll be for the foreseeable future. Canned media-friendly statements be damned, that’s not what Muschamp wants to be. He wants to be a head coach, to call his own shots, to run his own show and be his own boss. Maybe he’s done a little too much of that in his career as opposed to handing off certain duties to assistants better equipped to handle them. Maybe that’s why he’s staring a pink slip square in the face for the second time in less than a decade. Or maybe he just can’t handle it.
Regardless, it’s the last-ditch attempt to avoid all of that that the Gators are going to face off against tomorrow. And it’s not just Muschamp coaching with that attitude. He’s always been known as a player’s coach (how else could he be so successful as a recruiter despite such meager amounts of of success on the field?). So the most likely mood of the players Florida will line up against will be one of fury and eleventh hour desperation, to save the job of the man who recruited them to the school they’re playing at.
As was the message of my Mississippi pregame column, none of my presentation of the other side’s perspective is meant to discourage you from factoring in reality. Florida is a massive favorite for a college application essay full of reasons, the least relevant of which is the fact that Dan Mullen’s offense has shredded the defenses of Will Muschamp for 73 points and 882 yards in their two prior meetings. More relevant factors include the fact that Florida’s 2020 offense looks like it might be the best one Mullen has ever coached, South Carolina has approximately zero position-vs.-position matchups that favor them, and Florida is expected to get a bevy of defensive contributors back who missed the opener against Ole Miss, including James Houston IV, Brad Stewart, Kyree Campbell, Jeremiah Moon and Shawn Davis. Florida should win tomorrow, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did so in a laughably lopsided fashion.
All I’m saying is that for Florida, though the threat level is lower than a week ago- Carolina doesn’t have anywhere near the offensive weaponry that Ole Miss has- there’s still a non-zero chance of things going very wrong if the Gators merely go through the motions. Because if last year taught us anything, it’s that dismissing a desperate Will Muschamp team as a threat can have disastrous consequences.
And tomorrow, he’ll be more desperate than ever.