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South Carolina 40, Florida 17: Gators running on empty after road rout

Florida couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t stop the run against a mediocre team — one that revealed the Gators to be far worse.

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

Prior to Saturday night, South Carolina had never beaten Florida by more than 22 points in the sport of football.

But while a single point allowed the Gamecocks to establish a new program record in their 40-17 win over the Gators, it wasn’t nearly that close on the field.

South Carolina ran for 284 yards against a permissive Florida defense and got another 175 yards and two touchdowns through the air from Jason Brown — a little-known transfer from FCS St. Francis making his first FBS start — in a dominant performance that looked like a heavyweight doing whatever it wanted with a flyweight.

And on offense, Florida needed two big plays to get its 10 points in the first half and a long drive to get its only score of the second half — but, despite its first touchdown giving it a 7-3 lead, never seemed to be in control of the game for even a second. The Gators threw early and often, seemingly because they did not want to commit to their ground game — but that rushing attack that has been potent all year churned up just 82 yards against a South Carolina defense that had been one of the nation’s worst against the run.

Florida gave up 30 straight points after tying the game at 10 early in the second quarter, with a fumble by Emory Jones returned for a touchdown right before halftime in an unwelcome echo of the similar struggles that doomed the Gators against Georgia a week ago in Jacksonville.

But this team hadn’t held South Carolina in check prior to its end-of-half error, like it had Georgia — and it wasn’t moving the ball anywhere near as well as it did at times against the formidable Dawgs.

Chalk that up to Jones playing with his right thumb bandaged, Anthony Richardson being unavailable after a concussion, or a flu bug that apparently decimated the Gators throughout the week, leaving dozens of players unable to practice on any given day. The report card for this game is unquestionably an F for Florida, however — and one that likely seals the fates of some of Dan Mullen’s assistant coaches and maybe opens a legitimate debate on the head man’s future.

For defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a third straight game in which Florida gave up more than 30 points and appeared largely bewildered by the simple counter could prompt a rare-for-Mullen in-season firing — and some assistants might be out the door with him. Certainly, changes are coming for Florida’s defense no later than season’s end.

But Florida is now 4-8 in its last 12 games — and while six of those losses are to marquee programs Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Oklahoma, two of them are to Kentucky and South Carolina, programs well below Florida’s pedigree. Mullen’s offense is sputtering while Florida’s defense has gone splat, and most of the good will generated by the Gators’ first three seasons under his stewardship is getting wrung from Gator Nation by this trying campaign.

Florida still has three more games to play this fall, with a possible fourth coming if it makes a bowl. But that there is an if attached to the prospect of bowl participation for Florida, even after Mullen had appeared to get it to a higher plateau than it occupied for much of the 2010s, says plenty about how far Florida has fallen from the peak of the Mullen era.

And if tonight wasn’t the nadir for these Gators and Mullen can’t make short work of rebooting the program for future years, Florida will soon have no choice but to pick another guide for its quest to get back to the mountaintop of college football.