Florida vs. Vanderbilt: Either a win for Florida, or the beginning of the end for Muschamp

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida hasn't lost to Vanderbilt in my lifetime, much less the lifetimes of any of its players. For that reason and more, a loss to the Commodores would be catastrophic.

I've lived in Florida for all my 23 years, from birth to present. I was born and raised in Brevard County, and moved up to Gainesville to go to the University of Florida.

The last time Florida lost to Vanderbilt, I hadn't even been conceived.

That loss, a 24-9 defeat on October 15, 1988, was the Gators' second of four straight losses, over a span in which Memphis, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Georgia would beat Florida by a combined 83-23 tally. Those 1988 Gators finished 7-5, beating Illinois in the now-defunct All-American Bowl, and got worked by a 52-17 score by a top-five Florida State outfit — which is still the largest margin of victory for the Seminoles in series history.

If that all sounds a little too eerily similar to this 2013 season to you, you're not alone. But those hoping for a loss to Vanderbilt that would flush Will Muschamp out of Gainesville might do well to remember that Galen Hall, Florida's coach at the time, wasn't fired for losing to Vanderbilt: He was forced to resign in 1989, amidst allegations that he paid players, which ultimately resulted in two years of probation and a postseason ban for 1990.

Then again, 2013 is decidedly not 1988. And Florida's Saturday game against Vanderbilt is much, much more important as a result.

Florida will have a few distinctions on the line on Saturday — the Gators haven't had a losing record at any point since September 16, 1989 October 9, 1992, which is a nice bit of trivia to brag about, but would have one with a loss — but the most important objective for this team has to be earning bowl eligibility.

While a road trip to South Carolina and a home date with vaunted Florida State would still loom, a win over Vanderbilt would mean Florida's game against Georgia Southern would serve as a de facto bowl play-in game. And a win in that game is likely: Florida's never lost to an FCS foe, and the Eagles are just 4-4 on the season, with their wins coming against teams far less talented than even this diminished version of the Gators.

Getting to six victories would all but assure Florida's 23rd consecutive bowl appearance — and the weeks of practice that come with it, desperately needed for a team that will have to know what it's doing in the calendar year 2014, both to avoid losing its bowl and avoiding that losing record, and to prep for a 2014 regular season that seems likely to be make-or-break for the Muschamp regime.

But losing to Vanderbilt would make getting to six victories nearly impossible. And it would make what's going to happen to close Florida's season tough to take.

Florida won't be favored over either South Carolina or Florida State, and both of those teams are well-equipped to rout the Gators. Florida will have issues stopping Mike Davis and James Wilder Jr. on the ground, and Connor Shaw and Jameis Winston are sure to have opportunities to throw, thanks to the underwhelming Gators pass rush. Both defenses have plenty of pass-rushers, and neither is likely to be picked apart by Tyler Murphy.

Winning either game would be a rather surprising upset. Losing both, probably by double digits, is my expectation. And so I'm assuming that a 1-2 record over Florida's final three games is the most likely outcome.

With a win over Vanderbilt, going 1-2 over those last three games would produce a 6-6 record, but one in which the wins came against teams Florida was better than and the losses came at the hands of teams better than Florida¹. The Gators would get those bowl practices to sift through their players and give freshmen more work, and could work on things for whatever equally disappointing team they would play in a bowl or for 2014. And Muschamp's second 6-6 regular season in three years could be excused as the best he could do despite a devastating spate of injuries.

With a loss over Vanderbilt, going 1-2 over those last three games gets Florida its first losing season since the infamous 0-10-1 campaign of 1979 — back then, my parents were years from meeting, and my dad was younger than I am now — and a long, restless winter. Muschamp would lose the majority of the fan base, raised to believe that wins over Vandy are birthrights, and would probably have to shake up his staff considerably². And if you think the vultures are circling Florida's recruits now, imagine how loud those buzzards would be if the Gators can't even brag about a bowl.

This game against Vanderbilt, not the Georgia game that felt like an uphill battle and turned out to be just that, has to feel like a must-win for Muschamp, because a loss gives him at least a hot seat³ and a slew of disadvantages heading into 2014, ones that Florida's rigorous schedule will magnify. If Muschamp finishes 2013 with Florida at 5-7, I think he'll still return for 2014 — but the bar for improvement may be so high in 2014 and beyond that his Florida tenure will ultimately be doomed.

Expectations for Florida will be sky-high, with most major pieces from the 2013 team returning, and a number of talented recruits possibly getting plugged in at positions of need. But Florida's schedule in 2014 includes Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and Florida State, all teams that appear likely to be tough, even if the first five should all be losing their 2013 starting quarterbacks. A 9-3 mark against Florida's schedule (which also includes road trips to Tennessee and Vanderbilt, both likely to be much improved on their 2013 form) would be fairly impressive, but it might not get the Gators the SEC East title, and a five-year drought without making a run to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game would tie Florida's longest in the SEC's divisional era.

A 9-3 mark in the 2014 regular season would also get Muschamp to 32-18 in his Florida career — a decent mark, to be sure, but well off the pace of his more accomplished predecessors. Steve Spurrier went 40-10 in his first 50 games at Florida; Urban Meyer was 41-9 over his first 50 games with the Gators, and his next three were a 30-point win over Florida State, a seismic SEC Championship Game win over Alabama, and his second BCS National Championship Game win in four years.

Those are the standard-bearers; that's the standard. Muschamp's already assured of falling short of those marks — if Florida wins its next 16 games, Muschamp will only be 38-12 after his first 50 games — and I'm not sure Jeremy Foley and Florida's restless boosters will have as much patience with Muschamp as other teams have had with coaches (Georgia's patience with Mark Richt comes to mind) who have built solid, and only occasionally spectacular, SEC programs.

But Muschamp can buy himself a lot of time with a win over Vanderbilt, one that would reap the bonuses of a .500 season and preserve the streaks and distinctions that some Florida fans, myself included, cling to in these troubled times. If the Gators get a win, as expected, Muschamp's probably safe for 2014.

And so, to ensure the safety of their beloved coach, the Gators must win this game.

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  1. I think the Florida team that lost to Miami was better than Miami, but that team no longer exists, turnovers will kill even great teams, and, regardless, Miami both seems and currently is better than this Florida team.

  2. Shaking up his staff is something I genuinely don't think the fiercely loyal Muschamp really wants to do, and something a win over Vandy might at least postpone until after Florida's bowl game.

  3. bad loss, if extremely unlikely, might well get him pink-slipped at the end of 2013. Florida doesn't lose to Vandy, doesn't lose on Homecoming, and certainly doesn't lose badly to Vandy on Homecoming.

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Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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