As Mike McNeely stood up and ran towards the line on a field goal play, I knew that Coach Will Muschamp’s career probably hung in the balance. I had a hard time believing what I saw playing out on the television. Down 7-0, Coach Muschamp took a chance and as Mike McNeely ran towards the line of scrimmage on fourth down, 9 yards stood between Muschamp’s past, present and future. I took notice of the play like every other member of Gator Country and held my breath waiting for the outcome…
However, how had we all got here where a man’s future hung in the balance on one play?
Despite what a lot of the more virulent anti-Muschamp crowd will say, when Mr. Muschamp was hired, it was largely viewed as a coup d’etat. The young head coach in waiting at Texas had been on lots of programs short lists for a couple years. Most people believed that the hire made a lot of sense since Muschamp grew up in Gainesville, Florida.
However, a small, but vocal minority trumpeted his years spent in Athens, Georgia playing for the Georgia Bulldogs as a major negative on his resume. As bizarre as that sounds, even the Gator fan base has its own versions of moon-landing was a hoax crowd. The fear and loathing about Muschamp has always centered around Georgia.
To some, as ridiculous as it sounds, Coach Muschamp was a Bulldog plant sent to destroy the Gator program from the inside out. I mean think about it…I mean it makes sense despite the fact that Coach Muschamp would stand to gain millions of more dollars over the course of his lifetime by being a successful coach for one of the wealthiest and generous football programs in the country.
However, despite his best efforts, Muschamp had gone 0-7 in the Florida/Georgia game as a player and coach. With each passing year, this only seemed to raise doubts about his ability to win in this series. Even during the 2012 season where Florida went 11-2, Florida’s lone regular season loss was to Georgia. It seemed that Georgia was the hump that Will Muschamp and the Gators were not going to get over.
Moreover, Gator fans had suffered through three and a half seasons of awful offensive performances. Even after bringing in Kurt Roper and Mike Summers in the offseason, the Gator offense had regressed in almost every game since we played Eastern Michigan to start the season.
Entering the game the Georgia game the Gators stood at 3-3 and came off a bye week that followed a stinging and demoralizing Homecoming loss to Missouri. The Gators’ performance during that game was so disappointing, that I had wanted to run Mr. Muschamp out of town on a rail.
I firmly rooted against the more measured approach that Mr. Jeremy Foley decided to take in deciding the fate of our head coach. The fear and loathing surrounding the Gator program seemed to rise to a fever pitch and it was widely speculated that the Georgia game would be the last straw.
Moreover, open and public speculation about who would be the next coach of the Gators ran rampant during the bye week and the week leading up the Georgia game.
Most fans and pundits openly hoped that the Gators could keep the score respectable. No one realistically thought we had a chance to win the Georgia game. Even I had lost hope of the idea that somewhere out there that a probability existed that Florida could win the game. I forgot about Pascal’s Wager and the idea that the cost of faith is so low that it might have been worth the broken hearts caused by Alabama, LSU, and Missouri. For me, the fear and loathing had become personal.
I had placed myself firmly in the anti-Muschamp crowd a couple of weeks ago after the Gators dismal performance against Missouri. However, in my heart, I was struggling with the idea that of whether I was wrong to have come out so publicly against Muschamp and advocating for a change in leadership? Sometimes words and opinions do matter. Did being so negative somehow mean I was less of a Gator fan?
Everyone, including myself, seemed to forget that presently, Muschamp and his team still had a few things to say about the fate of this season.
Most notably, Mike McNeely:
As Mr. McNeely streaked past the first down line and into the end zone, I could swear that I heard a collective sigh of relief and breaths being exhaled all over the State of Florida. I know I let out a cartoonish, unbelievable, and incredulous, “Whaaaaaat?”
However, on our sideline, the head coach simply stood there looking like he knew it would work the whole time. The well-timed and executed trick play seemed more suited to ghosts of Gators past. In the spirit of Halloween, I was waiting for the head coach to take off his Will Muschamp mask and reveal himself as Stephen Orr Spurrier pulling one last trick as a Gator on the Bulldogs. However, it was just Coach Muschamp giving Gator fans something to think about.
For the first time in weeks I felt something positive in regards to Gator football. I felt like the Grinch because my heart must have grown three sizes that play.
Moreover, after that single play, the whole demeanor of the Gator sideline changed and a wave of confidence swelled up around the Gators and swamped the Bulldogs like a rogue wave. No one with any clout saw this coming and that’s what made it so sweet.
From that point on, a far different team was playing Georgia. From that point on, the Gators physically roughed-up the Bulldogs and completely broke the Bulldogs will. The Gators ran the ball and begged the Bulldogs defense to stop them; which they couldn’t. We ran inside, outside, over and around their defense. After letting Nick Chubb think we were an ordinary defense in the first quarter, we suddenly turned stout and Nick Chubb looked ordinary.
Finally, the coaches were having fun, the players were having fun, and the fans had fun again. It seemed like in the spirit of Daylight Savings Time we decided to turn the clock back a few hours early to the 1990s. It’s not exactly a stretch; a Taylor was running all over the Bulldogs again.
However, late in the fourth quarter, as Kelvin Taylor streaked down the sideline for the Gators’ final score, I wondered if this game was a dead cat bounce. Was this a last gasp effort to save Muschamp’s job?
I’m not some Negative Nelly or Debbie Downer, I absolutely enjoyed the win. I did not care that we only passed 6 times. We didn’t need to; we physically challenged and intimidated the Bulldogs. We found an identity. Finally, we broke them and Muschamp scored a win in this series. How could anyone complain about that?
The passing game wasn’t what I was concerned with, I just knew at some point that the game would end and I would be left with uncertainty and questions. I wanted this game to last for the rest of November. I want the team I saw on Saturday to show up the rest of the season because that team was scary good even if we were one-dimensional.
This is the kind of victory can be a turning point for the program. However, will it?
What I worried about was the bigger picture. I was afraid to hope again; I was afraid of getting my hopes up. The fear and loathing started to creep in again.
I came away with the impression that this coach and this team saw the light.
However, was the perceived light at the end of the tunnel an on-coming train?
We can only wait and see. While drinking in the sweet nectar of shattered Bulldogs’ hopes and dreams of an SEC title and berth in the College Football Playoff; I feared that this team will regress towards the mean and then I loathed myself for thinking that way. Why couldn’t I simply enjoy the win without worrying about the future?
Moreover, as I laid in bed on Saturday night the inevitable question that wormed into my mind was: Where has the team we all saw on Saturday been hiding all season? Our offense, while conservative, ran up and down the field on the Bulldogs for the final 3 quarters of the game. Once we got up 31-7 I knew the game was over. Where was this team against Alabama, LSU, and Missouri? Was I wrong about how bad this coach and this team?
Despite my reservations, the way this team played on Saturday made me believe that we could possibly win every game left on our schedule.
I don’t know if we will; but I do know this- if the team that showed up on Saturday in Jacksonville is the one that plans on showing up the rest of the season; then we might be in store for a November that will leave our most hated rivals with broken dreams and leave Gator fans full of hope for the future.
I know that I will be watching and hoping.
I will be hoping that Coach Muschamp feed my faith by making me eat my words; and I know that I have never wanted to be more wrong about anything because I am tired of all the fear and loathing in Gator Country.