Last week’s loss to Missouri wasn’t the homecoming the Gators hoped for.
And No. 15 Florida will try to avoid the same unfavorable fate that has claimed its past two weeks of competition when it hosts South Carolina at noon on Saturday.
The Gamecocks are a middle-of-the-pack team that has been virtually out of the hunt for the SEC East title since September, going 1-2 in conference play during that month. But bowl-hopeful South Carolina still has plenty to play for when head coach Will Muschamp returns to the Swamp hoping to hand his former team its third straight loss.
Before a late-season unravel last year that saw the Gators drop five straight games (six of their last seven), this was a team that hadn’t suffered a regular-season losing streak of three or more games since slipping into a seven-game skid in 2013. And Muschamp was in command during that span.
Since parting ways with the Gators after the 2014 season, the third-year USC coach has compiled a 20-14 record.
Florida tight end R.J. Raymond is one of few players left on the Gators’ roster who was part of a Muschamp-led Gators team, and he’s looking forward to greeting his former coach.
“It means that much more to us, the six guys that are still left to go out there and get a win,” Raymond said, “but it’s gonna be fun seeing him. You know Coach Muschamp’s a great guy. He’s always showed us love and waited for us after the games we have played him at South Carolina and mentioned to tell us how much he you know loves us … I’m very excited to go back and see him one last time.”
It has been slim pickings for the Gators the last two weeks in their quest for the same success they’ve had for much of the season.
Florida has given up a combined 74 points since returning from its bye week. And the Gators have been plagued by third down on both sides of the ball. They converted just three of 15 against Missouri (four of 12 against Georgia) and allowed the Tigers to convert on 61 percent of their third-down attempts (the Bulldogs converted 57 percent).
Last Saturday’s defensive collapse to a Missouri team that had been winless in SEC play until that point left many of the Gators defenders stunned and ready to prove they aren’t that team when they take on South Carolina.
“I mean, you’re supposed to feel like crap,” defensive lineman Adam Shuler said. “That’s not good. That’s not acceptable. We gotta handle it in practice and do better next week.”
Florida’s secondary has struggled to keep up with opposing receivers in the past two weeks, giving up a combined 490 yards through the air. And South Carolina wideouts Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel won’t prove an easier challenge. Both have experience, and they have size that allows them to be physical and make plays. Edwards, a junior, is 6-3, 220 pounds, and Samuel, a redshirt senior, stands at an even 6-feet, 210 pounds.
More of Florida’s woes have come in starting quarterback Feleipe Franks, who has just one passing touchdown and three turnovers in the past two weeks.
But as backup QB Kyle Trask reportedly suffered a season-ending non-contact injury in Wednesday’s practice, the struggling Franks might be the Gators’ only option.
Either way, execution at all three phases of Saturday’s game will be essential.
“We gotta outwork them, we gotta out grind them, we gotta out execute them and that starts today at practice,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “And I think a lot of guys’ll be ready for it.”