Gamecocks know struggling Gators are still dangerous
COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier listed the accomplishments out loud, so everyone could hear. Maybe he was trying to get his point across to the media throng Tuesday afternoon. Perhaps he was trying to believe it himself.
Just a season ago, Florida was near the pinnacle of college football. The Gators capped an 11-1 regular season with a win over hated rival Florida State. They represented the SEC at the Sugar Bowl. Coach Will Muschamp was the SEC Coach of the Year, and nobody was surprised.
“They were No. 3 in the nation in the BCS poll,” Spurrier said, pounding his message home. “If Notre Dame had lost to Southern Cal, they were playing Alabama for the national championship.”
Just a season ago, all was right in Gainesville. The way it should be. The way legions of Gators fans have come to expect over decades of dominance.
Spurrier reminded everyone this week, because everyone needed to be reminded. Last season feels like a long time ago.
What is the recipe for a collapse? First came Florida’s shocking upset loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl last January. Then, this season, came an injury plague so devastating it depleted a team that was ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press preseason poll.
Seven Florida starters have been lost for the season with injuries, including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel and star defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Driskel’s backup, Tyler Murphy, is questionable this week with a shoulder injury.
Rest assured, there will be no pity for a program that has kicked around much of the SEC since Spurrier coached there in the 1990s.
“At the end of the day, they’re still Florida,” USC senior cornerback Jimmy Legree said. “They’re still a great team historically, and we’ve just got to prepare well and get ready.”
As the injuries mounted, so have the losses.
The Gators have dropped four straight games, sinking to 4-5 this season. When South Carolina hosts Florida for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday on ESPN2, it will be the first team in 21 years to play the Gators when they’ve had a losing record.
Florida had held the SEC’s longest streak without a losing record going back to Oct. 10, 1992. Now, every SEC East team has been below .500 in the past two seasons, except South Carolina. The Gamecocks have the SEC’s third-longest streak without a losing record, behind LSU and Alabama of the SEC West.
“It’s weird to see that number,” USC defensive line coach Deke Adams said of Florida’s record, “but it’s not weird because in this conference you’ve got to play week in and week out. There are no weeks off. I don’t care what type of situation they’re in, there are no weeks off.”
Every program has its bad stretches, even the great ones. It’s more than the losses that have made Muschamp’s seat uncomfortable this fall. It’s the way they’ve lost.
The Gators were embarrassed against Vanderbilt, 34-17, on Saturday inside The Swamp, only the second time in program history Florida lost to Vandy at home. The first came in 1945.
“I think a lot has been made that Vanderbilt beat them,” Spurrier said. “You know, Vanderbilt did beat Georgia this year. It is not a disgrace to lose to Vanderbilt. They’re a pretty good team that plays smart and usually don’t beat themselves.”
Maybe there’s no disgrace in losing to Vanderbilt, which has built a solid reputation under coach James Franklin. For Florida, there’s plenty of shame in finishing a season with a losing record, which hasn’t been done in Gainesville since 1979. There’s plenty of disappointment in missing a bowl game, something the Gators haven’t done since 1990 — Spurrier’s first season at his alma mater.
With three games left, both scenarios are likely. Florida must beat No. 11 South Carolina and No. 2 Florida State in order to avoid those negative milestones.
Spurrier, for his part, didn’t take the bait when asked about Florida’s struggles this season. He remembers last fall, the drubbing his team took at The Swamp, and what could happen if South Carolina doesn’t fully focus on its opponent.
“We don’t really look at their record too much,” Spurrier said. “We look at their team, their players, what kind of scheme they have, and so forth. We know they are very capable of coming in here and beating us. We’ve struggled at home against most all the team’s we’ve played, as we all know.
“That’s the only thing we need to worry about, how we play and how we prepare this week to play Florida. It is as simple as that. That is all we need to worry about.”