So much is on the line for just about every college football team this time of year. Some teams are fighting for a berth in the college football playoff. Others want to reach that coveted 10 win mark by the end of the season. And then there are the teams that are playing for mere bowl eligibility.
But for Florida and South Carolina, there is so much more at stake than a mere win total. “Failure” will be used to describe the season of whichever team loses this game. Both schools share a win over Georgia, a myriad of embarrassing losses, and desperation for this win on Saturday.
For the 5-3 Gators, every game is essentially an audition for Will Muschamp to keep his job. Nobody could argue that he doesn’t have a lot to prove for the remainder of the season, and this is mainly because his Gator teams have been largely inept up until two weeks ago. A win would make Florida bowl eligible, and could potentially win them the division if they get a lot of help. But for Muschamp, and for the players who love him so dearly, it’s about saving his job. Winning this game by itself probably won’t do it, but winning out might. And this is the first step.
On the other sideline, there’s Steve Spurrier. The once proud Gator coach turned Gamecock coach has brought ole’ Cocky more success than they’re used to, and is in no danger of getting fired. But that success has come to an abrupt end this year. Other than picking up his usual win over Georgia, Spurrier’s Gamecocks have lost every single meaningful game this year. They’ve lost to Kentucky, Auburn, Texas A&M, Missouri and worst of all, Tennessee. Now, with their season unraveling, they’ll come into the Swamp at 4-5, desperately seeking a win to right the ship and finish strong, like their Gator counterparts.
But only one will be able to.
When you look into a mirror, you see every single part of yourself that anybody else can see. Any feature on your body that your friends can see, you can see as well by looking at that mirror. It represents the entirety of your physical being- every detail is reflected back and shown to you. But at the same time, the mirror reverses things. Maybe you have a lazy left eye. Maybe you have one earring. Or something of that nature. What you see in that mirror is identical in a way, but at the same time, it’s flipped to the opposite side. Every detail is still there, but it’s not how others see you- in fact, it’s the exact inverse.
The point is, when Florida looks into a mirror, they see South Carolina; when South Carolina looks into a mirror, they see Florida.
The Gators have had the success that they’ve had mainly because of their defense. This season is not classified as a disaster right now because of this defense, one that kept the Gators in the game against Alabama with three key turnovers and one that kept Tennessee within striking distance. But the offense has been a major point of concern, at least until the recent installation go Treon Harris. And even now, there are still questions concerning his ability to beat good teams with his arm.
At this point, though, the performance- how Florida plays- is largely irrelevant. Will Muschamp has dug himself too deep of a hole with last year’s 4-8 record and this year’s embarrassing performance against Missouri to save himself with a good performance. No, he needs to win. It can be ugly as hell, but he needs to win. His defense can hold the Gamecocks to 80 total yards, but if South Carolina wins 7-3 on a pick six, he’s finished. On the other hand, the Gators can turn it over four times, but if they win 7-3, he’s in good shape (at least until the FSU game).
Meanwhile, the situation is completely reversed with South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ offense, led by Dylan Thompson, is quietly one of the best in the nation at 36 points a game. Pharaoh Cooper is a nearly unstoppable receiver, and Mike Davis is well on his way to a 1,000+ yard rushing season, which combine to form some pretty awesome highlights. But the South Carolina defense continues to let them down. Big leads blown against Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee are what’s keeping this 4-5 from contending for the SEC East. With even two of those wins, they’re at least in the discussion.
But the fact is, they don’t have those wins. They’re 4-5, and staring their first losing season since 2004 straight in the face. That’s not exactly what their 69 year old coach has in mind. And remember the way he left Florida- after what he was convinced was his best team yet failed to even win the SEC East. So I’m not so sure this isn’t it for Spurrier. He’s already talking about his retirement plans, and given that this Gamecocks team had the second highest preseason ranking in school history (#9) and has subsequently made that ranking look like a bad joke, I’m thinking this as likely a time for him to retire as any.
Spurrier aside, the players want to win this game too. They really don’t want to be remembered as the first Gamecock team to not make a bowl game in a decade. But losing this game puts pressure on them to win at Clemson. Granted, they’ve dominated Dabo Swinney’s Tigers recently, but they’d rather kill any chance of not making a bowl game that they can. A win over Florida gives them five wins with a cupcake against South Alabama the next week; i.e. a great chance to get six.
So the two teams will come into the Swamp with perhaps the second highest combined stakes ever (after 2010, which was a de facto SEC East Championship). The Gators have lived and died by their defense, while the Gamecocks have gotten by with an explosive offense. Something has to give.
And something will give, for one of these teams, and whichever team it is will officially declare their season a disaster. The possibility of the coach who loses this game coming back to the school he is currently at appears to be very slim. The reasons are very different, and the teams’ identities are very different, but the ultimate ramifications are likely to be exactly the same for the loser of this game.
Make no mistake. It’s the Desperation Bowl on Saturday.