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  1. Sports

For Gators' Will Muschamp, Tennessee seems a must-win

It wasn't all that long ago that a Florida-Tennessee showdown was one of the biggest games of the college football season.

Not this year. In fact, it has been a while since this game truly mattered in the grand scheme of the SEC. Saturday's matchup in Knoxville likely will have no impact on the conference, let alone the national championship picture.

But that doesn't mean this game has no implications. Actually, there's a lot riding on the outcome. What, exactly?

Only the future of the Florida football program.

Here's the deal: If Florida goes up to Tennessee this weekend and gets beat, I don't see how UF coach Will Muschamp keeps his job.

Because if the Gators can't win against a so-so Tennessee team, how in the world are they going to navigate the rest of a schedule loaded with ranked teams and national title contenders?

A loss Saturday and you have to think there simply aren't enough winnable games left for Muschamp to stick around.

Muschamp won't be fired during the season. If athletic director Jeremy Foley has his way, Muschamp might not be fired at all. But losing to the Vols would be the next stumble in what appears to be a hard tumble down the mountain. A loss Saturday and Muschamp might want to dust off the resume and call his local RE/MAX agent.

Look at the schedule.

After Tennessee, Florida is at home against currently-ranked LSU and Missouri. Then comes the annual trip to Jacksonville to take on a Georgia team that could be in the top 10 by then.

After that, the Gators still have to play a pretty solid South Carolina team, as well as take a trip to Vanderbilt, which won't be the automatic W it used to be.

There's a gimme game against Eastern Kentucky before the season wraps up at — gulp — top-ranked Florida State.

If Florida can't even beat Tennessee, can you find four more victories it would take to finish with a winning record? And a losing record would give Florida its first back-to-back losing seasons since 1978-79.

Even that no-good, rotten Ron Zook didn't dare have back-to-back losing seasons. Here's a cold bucket of reality: In three seasons at Florida, Zook's record was 23-14. Muschamp's record so far: 24-17.

In three-plus years, Muschamp already has lost 12 games in the SEC, the same number of SEC losses Urban Meyer had in six seasons at Florida and the same that Steve Spurrier had in 12 seasons.

Muschamp has taken over one of the elite programs in the country and, with a little help from Meyer's herky-jerky departure from Florida, turned it into just another run-of-the-mill program, not even good enough to reach a bowl game last year.

This season, the Gators sit at 2-1. Not bad … until you do a little digging.

They started with a win against a school (Eastern Michigan) that I wasn't even sure had a football team. Then they needed triple overtime at home to beat Kentucky. That's a nice win during basketball season. During football season, it was cause for alarm. And the reasons for worry were justified when Florida went to Alabama and was kicked around by the Tide.

No embarrassment losing on the road to Alabama, but it's how the Gators lost that was so discouraging. It wasn't even close.

Muschamp, a supposed defensive specialist, watched Alabama shred his defense for more than 600 yards.

Offensively, he has put his trust in Jeff Driskel, who simply hasn't panned out as the type of quarterback a team needs to sling its way through the ridiculously competitive SEC.

Come to think of it, what has Muschamp ever done in Gainesville?

He has never beaten Georgia in three tries. He has lost two out of three each to Florida State, South Carolina and LSU. The only team he has beaten regularly is Tennessee. He's 3-0 against the Vols, but if he loses Saturday, there goes that excuse to keep him.

Muschamp is now in his fourth year, long enough for his recruits to start having an impact. Yet we've seen little to suggest that they are on the verge of turning things around.

It's not easy to fire a coach. It can do more harm than good. You don't want to be seen as an unstable program that has a revolving door to the coach's office. Already, Muschamp is Florida's fourth coach since 2001, counting Spurrier's final season.

Plenty of coaches have gone through tough times before coming out on the other side with a winner. All the greats go through dry spells and down seasons. But the difference here is Muschamp doesn't have the pedigree of the greats. He isn't Nick Saban or Bob Stoops or even Jimbo Fisher.

Plus, why wait if you know in your gut it isn't working? Auburn pulled the plug on Gene Chizik two years after he won the national title in 2010 and ended up going back to the national title game last season. Notre Dame cut loose Charlie Weis and hired Brian Kelly, who took the Irish to a national title game within three seasons. Other successful programs — Oregon, Stanford, Ohio State — continue to be successful despite multiple coaches.

Florida is not Florida anymore. It's Arizona. It's Syracuse. It's, dare I say, Rutgers.

It's time for Florida to return to glory. That means not losing to Georgia Southern no matter how many injuries you have. That means going to Alabama and not being satisfied with keeping it close for a half. That means beating Georgia. That means playing for SEC titles and being in the conversation for national titles.

It means going to Knoxville this weekend and beating the snot out of the Vols.

If it can't do that, it's time for a change.





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