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Florida vs. FSU: A win won't save Will Muschamp, but it would change his legacy

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If Florida beats Florida State, it's going to be awesome. But it's also going to be awkward.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2014 season, I was asked, in about as many forums as exist for Gators fans, "What does Will Muschamp need to do to save his job?" It was the question of the offseason for Florida fans, and for observers watching the program, even if that question's structure implies a level of control coaches don't actually have — Muschamp needed to coach his players well enough that his team won eight or nine games.

I spent the offseason using 8-4 as the point of inflection for Florida: If the Gators ended up with more than four regular-season losses, Muschamp was a goner, and if they ended up with fewer than four, Muschamp was absolutely returning. At 8-4, though, the question would be about which wins and what losses.

With a win on Saturday at Florida State, Florida would finish a 7-4 regular season that would have been an 8-4 regular season if not for lightning, rain, and a late kickoff conspiring to cost Florida a win over Idaho1. The Gators would also own wins over two top-10 teams and traditional rivals away from The Swamp, and a signature win over a Florida State program that seems to have seized control of the Sunshine State.

I'm not arguing that Muschamp shouldn't have been fired, or won't be, even if the Gators pull off the upset in Tallahassee. But those two positives would weigh heavily against the bêtes noires of Florida's 2014: Come-from-ahead losses to LSU and South Carolina, and blowout defeats against Alabama and Missouri.

With a win over FSU, Florida would be 4-1 with Treon Harris starting, and both of those big wins pinned on its freshman quarterback's tote board. And, as fans with memories of longer than a month may recall, Harris's insertion at Tennessee helped Florida win that game, while his five-day suspension for being the named accused in a sexual battery complaint makes Florida's hypothetical performance against LSU and Missouri with Harris available for the former game and potentially starting for the latter unknowable and tantalizing.

That outcome would cast a lot of Florida's troubles over the last few years on picking the wrong horse, Jeff Driskel, at quarterback, and though Muschamp is at least ultimately culpable for that decision, he would also get more credit for switching steeds — especially if his decisions prior to and during the LSU game weren't made by fiat.

When I write that Florida's performances against LSU and Missouri in this hypothetical universe are "unknowable and tantalizing," I mean it: We don't know that Harris could have avoided Driskel's critical mistakes (three turnovers against LSU, including an interception to set up LSU's game-winning field goal; four turnovers against Missouri, including two that were returned for touchdowns) in those games. And we actually have compelling evidence (Harris's own two turnovers against Missouri) that he may well have been just as overmatched.

But the narrative would have been different. For Driskel, those turnovers were unforgivable, the product of a coach with too much faith in a player with too little capacity; with Harris, they would have been growing pains. Florida fans have talked themselves into the new guy at quarterback for so long that even Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, each among the three-man fraternity of Gators starting QBs to win national titles, saw honeymoons end. (And if you don't think Tebow's did, recall the "real quarterback" talk about Florida's future in 2010.) Certainly, Harris's errors could have been excused.

Couple that with wins over Georgia and FSU, even without factoring in the possibility that Harris would have improved enough to help Florida fend off South Carolina, and you would have, at minimum, a 7-4 team with a bright, bright future.

Florida could still be that, true. But it won't be with Muschamp at the helm.

Jeremy Foley's loyalty to and admiration of Muschamp are extraordinary and authentic, and I think he would gladly have kept him if that trajectory, and not one with multiple collapses, had been Florida's path in 2014. But even that loyalty and the good feeling of an exorcism of a win against Florida State won't be enough magic to get Foley to reverse course on a public firing that he took great pains to execute perfectly.

The decision was final 10 days ago, and nothing is changing it.

All that might change now is Muschamp's legacy.

If Florida wins this game, that guy Florida State fans like to disparage as a blundering hothead will own the last two wins over a fledgling dynasty, and his team will have gleefully guillotined the Seminoles' chances of a second straight national title. Sure, Muschamp will be 2-2 against FSU and 1-3 against the Gators' three primary annual SEC foes (Georgia, South Carolina, and LSU), but those two wins would be the sweetest in recent memory for nearly any fan, and the latter one would be celebrated by the nation, which has anointed FSU as the villain of the piece in 2014.

And, unlike in 2004, when Ron Zook's Gators toppled Florida State, but Urban Meyer was understood to be Florida's next head man, Muschamp would be standing tall without a clear successor. More than one person has wondered privately to me about the wisdom of Florida firing Muschamp of late, and though I still think his firing is a fair call, I can't say that I'm certain it's right, nor that win over Florida State wouldn't do anything to change my thinking.

On Saturday, if Florida beats Florida State, Will Muschamp's getting carried off the field, riding into the sunset on the shoulders of players who love him dearly, with the equivalent of a 2014 record that I thought would give Jeremy Foley a decision to make.

But we know he's riding off for good, because Foley's already made his decision. We know Muschamp's immediate future, and, especially if his team wins that game, we're going to feel rather sure his long-term future is going to include having success somewhere else.

It's Florida's future that we don't know quite so well.

Star-divide


  1. Given that Florida beat Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky by a combined 117-3 count, and that Idaho, which has beaten 2-9 New Mexico State and lost the rest of its games by at least a touchdown, is 1-9, I think we can agree that Florida would've wiped the turf with the Vandals.