HOOVER, Ala. - Rock bottom came on a Tuesday night late last season, just before another day's work ended.
Florida coach Will Muschamp remembers being in his team's defensive meeting room, preparing third-down drills for Wednesday's practice. The trainer knocked on Muschamp's door around 10 p.m. Muschamp was conditioned to expect the worst.
GAMECOCKS IN SEC SPOTLIGHT
Who: USC coach Steve Spurrier, QB Dylan Thompson, LG A.J. Cann, DT J.T. Surratt
What: SEC Media Days
Where: Hoover, Ala.
When: 10 a.m. Tuesday
"He's usually not there at 10 at night," he explained.
Muschamp's instincts were right. He learned offensive tackle Tyler Moore had crashed his scooter and broken his elbow. Moore's season was over one month premature, thanks to a freak accident. It was another in a long, debilitating line of injuries that crippled Florida's season, leading to the program's first losing record since 1979.
It can't happen again. At Florida, Muschamp knows there are no excuses. Nobody gets a third chance.
"There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business," Muschamp said at the beginning of his opening statement Monday at SEC Media Days, before anyone could even ask about his job security. "That's part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we're going to do."
Muschamp didn't try to avoid the uncomfortable reality he faces this season. If any coach in the SEC enters the fall sitting on a hot seat, it's him. Muschamp said he never doubted last season whether he'd be retained as coach, but he knows Florida must play better.
Security is a fleeting feeling for SEC coaches. Ask Gene Chizik, who was fired at Auburn two years after winning the national championship. Muschamp led the Gators to an 11-win season and Sugar Bowl appearance in 2012. The stain of last season's 4-8 record, a staggering fall from grace that included a season-ending seven-game losing streak, will be hard to erase.
"I think you combat the hot seat talk with having a good team and winning games," Muschamp said. "Control the controllable, is always what I've said. Control the things you can control. I haven't always practiced it, but try and just control the things I can control. That's coaching our football team, developing our football team."
A turnaround won't be easy. While the offseason has helped its roster heal, Florida faces unprecedented realities in the SEC East.
The landscape has never been more packed atop the division's hierarchy. Tennessee has its sights on returning to bowl eligibility this fall. Georgia remains a divisional power. Vanderbilt is coming off three straight bowl appearances.
South Carolina has never been better, with former Gators coach Steve Spurrier leading the Gamecocks to three straight 11-win seasons.
There is no shortage of rivalries at Florida. South Carolina may be the most important series for the Gators to retake. Entering 2010, Florida had won 18 of its past 19 games against USC. Since then, the Gamecocks have taken three of the past four.
In 2010, 2011 and 2013 - years when South Carolina beat Florida - the Gamecocks finished ahead of the Gators in the SEC East standings.
"When you have the SEC East, you're always thinking Georgia, South Carolina, Florida," said Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel. "Those three are always the ones that are at the top of the leaderboard for the East. That's an important game, but so are the other SEC games.
"It's a game that you have to play extremely well to win. If you go back two years ago, we beat them big-time. It wasn't because we were that much better. It was because they made some critical errors, and we capitalized on them. There's so much competition, and the teams are so close, that you just have to make the plays when they're there."
Driskel knows his coach's job is on the line this season. Like Muschamp, the senior quarterback didn't try to avoid the unavoidable.
"Nobody's thinking about that," Driskel said. "Obviously, we're going to play hard for Coach Muschamp, but at the end of the day we're not playing for his job. We're playing for the University of Florida. We're playing for our group of guys. It's just not something that's in the back of our mind, but we are behind Coach Muschamp 100 percent."
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