Florida seeks bowl eligibility on Senior Day vs. Eastern Kentucky

Freshman quarterback Treon Harris and the Gators face FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky on Saturday hoping to clinch a bowl berth.

Kim Klement

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Will Muschamp has been at the center of perhaps the biggest story in college football this week.

Muschamp’s career as Florida’s head coach is on its deathbed. Two games left, starting with Saturday’s matchup against FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky.

Ever since Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley announced Sunday that Muschamp was stepping down at the end of the regular season, much of the focus outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has been on the future.

Inside, coaches and players have tried to stay in the present.

"As a senior, I want to go out with a win,” center Max Garcia said. "This is my last time running onto Florida Field so I want to go out the right way. I feel like the younger guys are going to make sure we’re going to do that and obviously go out to Tallahassee and win that game also.

"We’re playing for each other, we’re playing for Muschamp, we’re playing for Gator Nation. Nothing has changed."

Coincidentally, as the Gators try to earn a victory and become bowl eligible in Muschamp’s final home game, a coach Muschamp once replaced will try to prevent that on the opposite sideline.

Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood was an assistant at EKU in the late 1990s when he left to join Jim Grobe’s staff at Ohio University.

Former Colonels head coach Roy Kidd tabbed Muschamp to replace Hood as secondary coach 15 years ago. It was one of the early stops Muschamp made on his way to becoming one of the country’s top defensive coordinators.

Heads held high

"One thing I always appreciated about Will, is that he’s always been good to Coach Kidd," Hood told the Lexington Herald-Leader this week. "When he got the Florida job and they were coming up to play at Kentucky, he reached out to Coach Kidd to see if he wanted to come, offered him sideline passes. Here he was at the pinnacle of coaching, Florida, and he hadn’t forgotten about the man who gave him his first (NCAA Division I) job. I liked that."

Hood’s story sums up nicely Muschamp’s reputation as a person. As a coach, his record (27-20) at Florida wasn’t good enough to keep his job. The Gators will try to add a pair of wins to that total the next two weeks, starting Saturday against the Colonels.

For more on the matchup here is the latest edition of The Opening Kickoff:

FIVE STORYLINES

–The news Sunday that Muschamp will step down as head coach after the Florida State game is the looming storyline heading into this one. It will be interesting to see how the Gators respond and whether they can win Muschamp’s final game in The Swamp.

–The Gators are honoring 23 players on Senior Day. Florida’s senior class has a 27-20 record under Muschamp and the fifth-year seniors are 35-25. Meanwhile, sixth-year senior Andre Debose was around for the 13-1 season in 2009 and is the veteran member of this group.

–Florida is 2-3 at home, has lost three in a row and six of its last eight at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium going back to last season. The last thing Muschamp and the seniors want is to go out with four consecutive losses at The Swamp.

–The Gators look forward to the return of safety Keanu Neal, who has been out with a high-ankle injury since the first half of the Georgia game. Neal is one of the most promising players on the roster for the next Gators head coach.

–Unfortunately, the Gators will be without a pair of regulars on defense in linebackers Neiron Ball and Jarrad Davis. Ball and Davis both suffered season-ending knee injuries in the loss to South Carolina. Both players had surgery on Monday. Ball, a senior tied for second on the team with 49 tackles, will still participate in Senior Day festivities.

TOPICAL TWEET

CAST OF CHARACTERS

–Freshman UF quarterback Treon Harris had 111 rushing yards against South Carolina, becoming the third Gators quarterback since 1996 to rush for 100 yards (Tim Tebow and Jeff Driskel are the others).

–Gators junior defensive lineman Dante Fowler Jr. announced via Twitter this week that he is leaving school early for the NFL Draft. If that comes to fruition, Fowler is playing his final game at The Swamp.

–Sophomore linebacker Alex Anzalone is expected to play significant time against EKU in Ball’s absence. Anzalone had a career-high four tackles against South Carolina.

–Colonels sophomore Devin Borders, a 6-foot-5 receiver from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., has five blocked kicks (two punts, three field goals) after blocking five kicks as a freshman. The Gators will want to be aware of Borders in the wake of their kicking troubles in the South Carolina loss.

–Eastern Kentucky’s offense can score, and when it does, it’s usually fast. Of the Colonels’ 57 scoring drives, 34 took two minutes or less off the game clock.

OPPONENT SPOTLIGHT

If the name Dy’Shawn Mobley sounds familiar, the Eastern Kentucky junior running back played his first two seasons at Kentucky before transferring.

A week ago in a 43-36 win over Murray State, Mobley set a school record and tied the Ohio Valley Conference record with six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving).

In the video below, Mobley goes 69 yards for a score last season at Georgia:

QUOTE FILE

— "I’d like to obviously be working next year. I’m looking forward to that next step, but what that will be I have no idea." — Muschamp on his future

— "We’ve got a deep and talented roster. So don’t let the new guy tell you he ain’t got no good players. I’ll tell you that right now. There are some good football players in that locker room." — Muschamp on team he leaves behind

— "We won’t change. We’ll go out there, we’ll work. I’ll cherish my last couple weeks here. They’ll cherish their last couple weeks here. We’ll all cherish and enjoy this time because things will be a lot different next year." — Florida linebacker Michael Taylor on preparing for final two games

— "Not true. Not true. In my experience, absolutely none of it’s true. You know when we got here it was completely, ‘Hey, do it how you best see fit.’ And he doesn’t call plays." — Gators offensive coordinator Kurt Roper on rumors of Muschamp meddling in offense

— "Urban promised me they’d pay us a half million dollars (in guarantee money), he’d grill me a sea bass on Friday night (before the game) and he’d play his backups the whole game." — Eastern Kentucky coach Dean Hood, a friend of former UF coach Urban Meyer from when they grew up together in Ashtabula, Ohio, on when EKU agree to play the Gators

Florida Gators news

HISTORY LESSON

Sunday is the official one-year anniversary of Florida’s loss to Georgia Southern, the first-and-only loss in school history to an FCS opponent.

The Gators hope by the time the sun sets Saturday night, they will have resumed their winning ways against FCS opponents. Eastern Kentucky is 0-4 all-time against SEC teams, losing to Kentucky three times and Vanderbilt once.

FIVE QUICKHITTERS

–Gators linebacker Antonio Morrison had a career-high 16 tackles in the loss to South Carolina, the most tackles by a UF defender since safety Ahmad Black in 2010.

–This is the first meeting between the schools. Eastern Kentucky, an FCS school, is 7-20 all-time against FBS programs. The Colonels snapped an 18-game losing streak to FBS opponents with a 17-10 win at Miami (Ohio) earlier this season.

–Eastern Kentucky had 673 yards of total offense in its win over Murray State, the program’s highest total in seven years under head coach Dean Hood.

–Junior running back Matt Jones needs 239 yards in the final two regular-season games to reach the 1,000-yard barrier.

–Muschamp was defensive backs coach at Eastern Kentucky in 1999 under former Colonels head coach Roy Kidd.

BOTTOM LINE

The Gators need a win to become bowl eligible and the prospects appear much greater against the Colonels than No. 3-ranked Florida State next week in Tallahassee. Florida’s ability to block out the distractions of the past week looms large in this one. Look for an inspired Gators team to respond accordingly in Muschamp’s final game at The Swamp.