GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Will Muschamp calls every game a must-win. Following a lopsided loss at Alabama, it’s really starting to look and feel that way for Muschamp and the Gators.
Florida’s season and Muschamp’s future could be decided in the next month.
The Gators play four games over the next five weeks that might determine whether they’re back in the Eastern Division race or in the market for a new coach. It begins Saturday at Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee, which is a slight favorite despite losing nine consecutive games in the series.
“It’s very critical because the East is wide open right now and everybody has a loss,” running back Matt Jones said Tuesday. “To go in there and beat Tennessee is going to be good.”
It would be a much-needed confidence boost for a program (and fan base) that is coming off its first losing season since 1979, had a scare against Kentucky and was thumped 42-21 at Alabama. Florida (2-1, 1-1 SEC) was off last week and spent the time trying to improve its woeful secondary and get quarterback Jeff Driskel and the passing game operating with more consistency and efficiency.
Neither seems to be an easy fix.
The defense gave up a school-record 672 yards against the Tide, getting burned repeatedly by receiver Amari Cooper early and then getting gouged on the ground late. Alabama threw for 449 yards and five touchdowns, connecting on scores of 87 and 79 yards in the first quarter alone.
Florida had nearly as many defensive breakdowns a week early against Kentucky. The Wildcats hit six passing plays longer than 25 yards, including three for touchdowns. The Gators overcame those defensive lapses and escaped in triple overtime.
Even though Florida won a game it surely would have lost in 2013 and totaled 532 yards, there were calls from fans on talk shows and social media for Muschamp to be replaced. Those grew louder after getting drubbed by Alabama in a game that showed just how wide the gap is between the programs. While only three teams have won in Tuscaloosa since coach Nick Saban’s first season at Alabama in 2007, it was how the Gators were dominated that upset fans.
Florida was outgained by nearly 500 yards, and without Alabama’s 11 penalties, four turnovers and running out the clock in the closing minutes, it easily could have been a 40- or 50-point loss.
Still, the Gators don’t believe they’re that far off.
“I feel as confident as I did before the Alabama game about this team and where we are,” Muschamp said. “We played a very good football team on the road and we had our opportunities and we didn’t get it done. It’s a long season.”
Muschamp’s take clearly has trickled down to his players.
“I think we should have beat them,” Jones said. “I mean, we had ‘em. We should have executed better. ... They were a very beatable team, and they just pulled away from us.”
While many others likely see that game differently, the Gators are still in control of their fate. With games against LSU, Missouri and Georgia following Tennessee, they could even slip up once and be in contention for the SEC title game in November.
The key to getting there could be Driskel, who played one of the worst games of his college career against the Tide. He completed 9 of 28 passes for 93 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper are standing behind the fourth-year junior, saying he will start against Tennessee. They even put to rest speculation that freshman Treon Harris would get playing time against the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1).
“We’ve got to be more productive in the passing game,” Roper said. “I think that’s the biggest issue.”
If not, it could be another long season in Gainesville.
The Gators went 4-8 last year and blamed most their issues on a rash of injuries. If athletic director Jeremy Foley wanted to make a coaching change, he surely could have done it after the Gators lost seven consecutive games to end the season or after they dropped a close game against then-lower division Georgia Southern.
Instead, he’s giving Muschamp an opportunity to turn things around.
Chances are everyone, including Foley, will know the outcome in the next month.
“All the goals are still there, got a lot of football to play,” Muschamp said. “Everything’s out in front of us. Let’s go get it. They’re all must wins. When has it ever changed?”