Gators defensive tackle Taven Bryan smirked, realizing he still had Will Muschamp’s old playbook.
“I may pass that out,” Bryan said. “I’m sure not much has changed.”
Bryan, a redshirt junior, was a freshman when Florida fired the current South Carolina head coach. Saturday at noon, Muschamp and his second-place Gamecocks will host a vulnerable Florida (3-5, 3-4 SEC) team still marred by the loss of its most recent sideline chief, Jim McElwain.
But Bryan and the rest of the Gators can’t afford to carry that baggage into Columbia, South Carolina, this weekend or risk a repeat of the Missouri debacle.
Bryan’s amusement evaporated as he was asked about the last time Florida let its focus fade, a 45-16 gash that dashed hopes of a midseason comeback — a game that saw Florida’s defense fold like an origami Tiger.
“I just don’t think people were as committed as they needed to be,” Bryan said.
It’s not an isolated opinion when it comes to Florida’s defensive players.
Middle linebacker David Reese was lauded for challenging his teammates’ effort after the Tigers torched Florida for 455 yards of offense and six touchdowns.
“It’s sometimes disappointing when everybody doesn’t want to come together and just play for each other,” Reese said after the loss. “That’s sad to see.”
Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gators have a chance to get better, even if it’s not a high bar to surpass: UF’s defense is coming off the worst two-week stretch in 100 years of Florida football, having given up more than 40 points in back-to-back weeks for the first time since 1917.
Mistakes made in Missouri — penalties, giving up third-down conversions — have to be corrected or the Gators risk being remembered for another dispiriting milestone: Becoming the second Gators group to miss a bowl game since 1987.
“Florida always goes to bowl games,” Reese said. “Just holding up tradition. We need to play our hardest, play out, do what we can do to get this good motivation for the next year.”
The slog to stay eligible begins at South Carolina (6-3, 4-3 SEC), where a win gives Florida something to rally around heading into its two remaining regular-season games against UAB and Florida State.
For Bryan, a highly scouted lineman who can smell the NFL Draft, a bowl game may not be as meaningful. But he recognizes that Florida’s younger players need something to compete for, something to send them into spring on an upward trajectory.
“You only get three guaranteed opportunities,” Bryan said. “A bowl game is crucial for them.”
You can follow Matt Brannon on Twitter @MattB_727, and contact him at [email protected].