Slumping Gators face steep challenge against FSU
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They walked out of the visitor's tunnel at Doak Campbell Stadium last November harboring thoughts of a potential appearance in the national title game.
The Gators needed help, starting with a USC win over Notre Dame. They also had to beat the 10-1 Seminoles on the road. The Gators did their part with a 37-26 victory, capping an 11-1 regular season in head coach Will Muschamp's second year.
The five-game improvement from his first regular season (6-6) was the biggest one-season turnaround for the Gators in 32 years. Later that night, Notre Dame defeated the Trojans to send Florida to the Sugar Bowl.
The Gators and Seminoles renew the Sunshine Showdown for the 58th time Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (noon, ESPN). This year it's the No. 2-ranked Seminoles thinking national championship.
As for the 4-7 Gators, they can think of no better way to end the program's worst season since 1979 by upsetting the 11-0 Seminoles and spoiling their bid to play for the national title.
"It's pretty frustrating," senior receiver Solomon Patton said. "That's our rival, and to see them actually on top right now and doing real good, it's pretty hard to see that every Saturday."
A year ago this matchup pitted two 10-1 teams against one another, both ranked in the top 10. There was talk of a rivalry reborn, one that awakened the glory days of the 1990s when both programs won national titles and their annual clash often had national-title implications.
Most of the talk Monday focused on Florida's struggles and the future of the program under Muschamp.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and school president Bernie Machen both offered their support of the program under Muschamp's direction earlier this month. In the wake of Saturday's loss to FCS-opponent Georgia Southern, nothing has changed.
Muschamp was asked Monday if he was concerned about his future.
"Absolutely not," he said.
When asked if he expects to be Florida's coach next season, Muschamp replied, "absolutely."
Muschamp plans to evaluate his coaching staff and the program's direction once Saturday's game against the Seminoles is over.
Until then, he said his focus is on preparing for the Seminoles with an injury-depleted roster that could be without starting quarterback Tyler Murphy for the third consecutive game. Murphy is listed as questionable, which means if he can't play, redshirt freshman Tyler Mornhinweg will make this third consecutive start.
The No. 1 immediate goal is to find ways to move the ball consistently, a problem Florida's offense has experienced all season.
"We're searching," Muschamp said. "We're looking at different options and things we can do. It's just been tough, you know. But it is what it is. As far as changing things, I mean you change some things for some moving parts up front. You've gotta be careful as far as some of those things we try and ask these guys to do."
With no magic formula in the playbook, the Gators must improve their execution on offense and on defense, find a way to slow down Heisman hopeful Jameis Winston.
The Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback is unbeaten in his college career and leads the nation in pass efficiency rating (194.5). Winston has thrown for 3,163 yards and 32 touchdowns. He needs only 46 yards to pass former FSU quarterback Drew Weatherford (3,208 yards in 2005) as the most prolific freshman quarterback in ACC history.
With Winston leading the offense, the Seminoles have scored 40 or more points in every game and racked up a school-record 80 points in a victory over Idaho last week -- all while Winston is being investigated for an alleged sexual battery charge.
"He's a great leader," Gators defensive back Jaylen Watkins said. "That's the first thing I noticed from watching their games. That's probably, I think, his biggest attribute. His strength is passing, too."
While FSU comes in a heavy favorite Saturday, they are not overlooking the Gators. They remember what happened last year in Tallahassee when they were favored on their home field.
FSU took a 20-13 lead before the Gators scored 24 consecutive points in the second half to pull away. The victory snapped Florida's two-game losing streak against the Seminoles. The Gators had beaten FSU six consecutive times before losing in Tallahassee in 2010.
"If we let up, they might hit us in the mouth," FSU junior running back Devonta Freeman told reporters Monday. "But we are not going to let them. I know for a fact we are not going to let up. The team we play has no face. We are going to prepare just the same."
That sounds exactly like something the Gators would say if roles were reversed.
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, a good friend of Muschamp's from their time on Nick Saban's staff at LSU, can relate to the frustration Florida fans have expressed this season.
Fisher was hired at FSU in 2007 as offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting. The Seminoles went 23-16 in Fisher's first three seasons in Tallahassee and needed bowl wins in two of those seasons to avoid a losing record. He heard criticism that maybe he wasn't the guy to replace Bobby Bowden.
Since Fisher took over in 2010, the Seminoles are 42-10.
"When you have injuries and things that go on … you can't judge a guy on one season," Fisher said Monday. "Will's a heck of a football coach. A great friend, but he's a heck of a football coach."
Muschamp is confident a similar turnaround can happen in Gainesville. He shares the same message with recruits.
"It's still the University of Florida," he said. "There's some obvious reasons why we are where we are. We're a team that won 11 games last year, and I don't think that happened by accident..
"We're going to have a good football team moving forward."