University of Florida

Senior pride, bowl eligibility on line in UF home finale vs. Eastern Kentucky

Max Garcia of the Florida Gators celebrates with fans following a 38-20 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field on Nov. 1, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Max Garcia of the Florida Gators celebrates with fans following a 38-20 victory over the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field on Nov. 1, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. Getty Images

Lost amid the shuffle of Will Muschamp’s firing, a rumor-fueled coaching search and veiled tweets from potential early departures to the NFL, Florida has a football game to play Saturday.

UF’s noon kickoff against Eastern Kentucky means very little for the future of the program. But for an unassuming group of 22 seniors, Saturday’s game means plenty.

Linebacker Michael Taylor and a pair of key cogs along the offensive line — center Max Garcia and tackle Chaz Green — lead a mostly anonymous senior class hoping to exit The Swamp smiling and bowl eligible.

“We’re playing for each other,” Garcia said.

“It’s Senior Night. This is my last time running onto Florida Field, so I want to go out the right way. We’re playing for each other. We’re playing for Muschamp. We’re playing for Gator Nation. Nothing has changed.”

Except everything.

Muschamp — who is just 27-20 in four seasons at UF — was dismissed Sunday, ending a tumultuous tenure defined by offensive failures, home losses (including three in a row) and staffing woes.

He will coach Florida’s final two regular-season games, and a victory over the Colonels — a solid Football Championship Subdivision school led by Kentucky transfer tailback Dy’Shawn Mobley (1,372 yards, 19 touchdowns this season) — would at least soothe the rottenness of a rough week.

Although the Gators are wary of Eastern Kentucky’s ground game (243.1 yards per game) and aggressive defense (30 turnovers forced), their own emotional state remains a concern.

Sunday’s news spurred a trying week for players, staff and the administration.

The Gators swear they will play inspired, but Muschamp’s farewell tour could leave players running on fumes.

“Senior Day is always an emotional day,” Muschamp said.

“Then couple with that knowing it will be my last game in The Swamp, it will certainly be emotional for me as far as those things are concerned. I’m just looking forward to it in a lot of ways, and certainly when it’s over I will be disappointed.”

Hopefully, for UF, just not with the result.

No.1 Florida State lingers a couple days after Thanksgiving, so UF very likely must beat Eastern Kentucky just to reach bowl eligibility.

For a senior class that has never reached a conference title game, missing postseason play for the second season in a row simply isn’t in the cards.

“I played a lot of games here. Emotions will run high,” Taylor said. “The main goal is to get the victory and go out as a winner in The Swamp. That should be the main thing. In honor of all the people who have supported us, who have cheered for us … honor all of the people who came in with us and are still here. Just putting all of that together and going out on [top] Saturday.”

For the seniors who have been through a lot, Saturday marks the final chance to walk out of The Swamp with their heads held high.

“It will be kind of bittersweet,” offensive guard Trenton Brown said. “But I just want to go out the right way and send [Muschamp] out the right way.”

Saturday: E. Kentucky at Florida

Kickoff: Noon; Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville.

TV/radio: SECN; WINZ 940.

Favorite: No line.

Records: Florida 5-4 (4-4 SEC); E. Kentucky 9-2 (6-2 OVC).

Series: First meeting.

Florida injuries: Out — LB Jarrad Davis (knee); LB Neiron Ball (knee); RB Mark Herndon (knee); CB J.C. Jackson (shoulder); TE Jake McGee (tibia); LB Jeremi Powell (knee); DL Thomas Holley (hip).

E. Kentucky injuries: No reported injuries.

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