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Florida vs. South Carolina, Field Report: Old folks at home

The Gators reunite with a former coach for their home opener.

NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A 2020 college football season that has turned normalcy on its end won’t stop being familiar for the Florida Gators in their home opener.

After all, Will Muschamp will be back in The Swamp.

The Gators will host Muschamp and his South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday, October 3, welcoming their former head coach back to Gainesville for the third time in his tenure as the head man of the Garnet and Black and hoping to avoid a loss to him for the first time since 2017.

Florida began that 2017 season much like it has the 2020 season or the 2013 season — with high hopes in the third year of a head coach’s stint in Gainesville. But by the time the Gators saw the Gamecocks in 2017, Jim McElwain would be gone from the Florida program, excised after a bizarre saga involving possibly invented death threats and a brutal blowout loss to Georgia. South Carolina put down a fiesty Gators team in Columbia that year, 28-20, with the aid of a defense that flustered both Feleipe Franks (40 percent completion rate) and Malik Zaire (50 percent) and two touchdowns each from Mon Denson and Jake Bentley.

And in 2013, South Carolina ended Florida’s realistic bowl hopes, surviving a mostly brilliant game plan that kept the Gators close despite the tremendously limited Skyler Mornhinweg at the helm at quarterback in a 19-14 win at Columbia. Another loss to South Carolina in 2014 — one ultimately sealed by a blocked punt — would bring a formal end to Muschamp’s time as Florida’s head coach, with his departure effective at the end of the regular season announced just after a 23-20 home defeat.

But Carolina couldn’t keep Steve Spurrier — who ultimately finished his Gamecocks career with a 5-5 record against his alma mater despite a 1-4 start during the dynastic Urban Meyer regime — forever, and his abrupt midseason retirement in 2015 left a program slowly receding from a plateau without a mountaineer to guide it. When it chose to repeat history by hiring a former Florida coach to fully replace a former Florida coach, South Carolina also picked a man who had made it to a base camp with the Gators only to come tumbling down.

In Columbia, Muschamp’s results have been relatively similar to his Gainesville arc: The Gamecocks have gone 6-7, 9-4, 7-6, and 4-8 in his four years, remarkably comparable to the 7-6, 11-2, 4-8, and 6-5 marks compiled under his leadership with the Gators — and uncannily so if the injury-plagued fourth year with South Carolina is flipped with the injury-plagued third year with the Gators. Those fourth seasons also both featured stunning upsets of heavily favored Georgia teams, though last year’s Gamecocks managed the feat as a 2-3 outfit playing in Athens and then promptly mustered just one more win over the final six contests of the season.

And the most obvious difference between Muschamp the Gator and Muschamp the Gamecock so far is that the Gamecocks retained him for a fifth year, which began with another bungled end: A punt deflecting off a Carolina blocker in the final minutes of play and being recovered by Tennessee condemned the Gamecocks to a 31-27 loss in last Saturday’s season opener.

The loss was just Muschamp’s second to the Volunteers as a head coach, but his 26th with the Gamecocks — bringing his record to an even .500. If Florida prevails on Saturday, Muschamp will be under .500 as a head coach at South Carolina for the first time since the 2016 offseason.

And if we’re being honest, Florida-South Carolina has returned to being a series about the Gators’ stature in the last couple of years, thanks largely to Dan Mullen taking the wheel. The 2018 meeting between the teams ended up being a get-right game for the Gators, who rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit and shushed — in Franks’s case, literally — boo birds who had seen them lose valiantly to Georgia and then listlessly to Missouri in the weeks prior with a 35-31 triumph. The 2019 contest was again about the Gators getting in gear, as a 21-point fourth quarter put away the pesky Gamecocks in a 38-27 road win — with Kyle Trask, this time, doing some shushing on the road.

Florida enters Saturday’s contest as a heavy favorite, the spread universally yawning larger than two touchdowns. But Florida hasn’t beaten South Carolina by two touchdowns since 2012, when a flood of turnovers left the Gamecocks swamped in Gainesville, and counts that explosion of points as its only 40-point outing against South Carolina since a 56-6 obliteration way back in 2008.

If the Gators can continue their ascent and their offensive prowess by laying a similar lick on the man once beloved as Coach Boom, it will be the latest chapter for a program that is increasingly flipping through the pages from a mediocre recent past to a dazzling present.