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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Bowl win bittersweet as Florida loses seniors, looks to the future

<p>Junior wide receiver Andre Debose smiles as he accepts the trophy for Most Valuable Player at the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2.&nbsp;in Jacksonville. Debose hasn't replicated the success he had in 2011.&nbsp;</p>

Junior wide receiver Andre Debose smiles as he accepts the trophy for Most Valuable Player at the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2. in Jacksonville. Debose hasn't replicated the success he had in 2011. 

JACKSONVILLE — When they finally got to the end, Will Muschamp didn’t do much talking.

Standing on the stage after Florida’s 24-17 win against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2, Muschamp kept his part of the celebration succinct. It was perfect. Not necessarily for its brevity, though that was appropriate — confetti doesn’t jibe with a 7-6 team.

Muschamp’s speech should endure as a memory of this season simply because of how he sounded. To cap a year of screaming — at refs, at players, at assistant coaches — Muschamp’s voice was hoarse.

For the last four months, Coach Boom has never failed to live up to his reputation, displaying his hair-raising sideline demeanor through both good times and bad.

That stayed true in the season finale. When Florida failed to attempt a Hail Mary at the end of the half against the Buckeyes, Muschamp berated freshman quarterback Jacoby Brissett as the team jogged to the locker room. In the third quarter, after reserve linebacker Graham Stewart scooped a blocked punt and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown, Muschamp sprinted down the sidelines before meeting special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin in midair with a flying chest bump.  

Fortunately for the Gators, the celebrating outweighed the screaming last Monday. That wasn’t the case for most of this season. And so at the end, standing on that stage, Muschamp might not have had energy for a long speech. But even in his brief time with the microphone, he didn’t hesitate to look forward to next fall.

“It takes time, and I appreciate your patience,” Muschamp said to the fans who stayed after the game. “I’mma tell you what: We’re gonna have a better football team next year because of these young men you’ve got right here.”

Fitting then, that sophomore receiver Andre Debose soon took the stage to accept the game’s MVP trophy. Debose, whose 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown gave Florida a 14-7 edge in the second quarter, has proven to be the team’s most explosive playmaker the past two seasons.

And come this summer, when preseason publications start showing up in grocery stores, Debose will be seen as the focal player for Florida’s 2012 offense. Analysts will undoubtedly ask a simple question: Can Debose put it all together and become “an elite playmaker,” as Urban Meyer once described him?

After all, he was second on the team with five touchdowns this season, but he only caught 16 passes. Debose, of course, will be an expert at answering consistency questions during the preseason. He has heard them after every game in which he has found the end zone, be it through special teams or a deep pass. The Gator Bowl was no different.

“I just try to do anything that I can do to help the team,” he said after the game. “You know, I had an opportunity (last Monday) to help the team a lot, so it feels great. There’s no feeling like it.”

But for all the talk about the future, the Gator Bowl was also an opportunity for UF’s seniors, who watched the program fall from elite to mediocre the last two years, to go out with a bittersweet victory. 

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Before leaving the field, defensive tackle Jaye Howard hugged a couple of assistant coaches. Howard, who labored in his first couple years before emerging as a consistent force in 2010, finished his final college game with 1.5 sacks.

In all, the defense registered a season-high six sacks on Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. That was the type of effort fans envisioned before the season, when the sophomore trio of Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd and Ronald Powell were hyped as some of the most talented linemen in the country. However, the pass rush proved to be merely mediocre this season, finishing sixth in the SEC with 22 sacks.

But there is hope for the future. Howard too was once a touted recruit playing below expectations.

“They’re going to have a bright future next year, and I wish them guys the best,” said Howard.

And of course, as Muschamp and Debose stood on the stage, as linemen took pictures and Howard celebrated, there was John Brantley, ending his career in an appropriately nondescript manner. Brantley, the quarterback whose realized potential always seemed to be waiting in the world of “next year,” stood away from the pack, his hands hooked on his shoulder pads, wearing a Gator Bowl hat and chatting with a photographer.

Last season, Brantley never could play well enough to peel Tim Tebow’s shadow off of him. This season, Brantley couldn’t stay healthy enough to score a signature victory. And so, in the last game of his career, the man who was supposed to bring an aerial assault to Florida got the victory as a modest game manager, finishing 12 of 16 for 132 yards and a touchdown. Florida scored two of its three touchdowns on special teams.

Brantley certainly didn’t play badly, but the performance will be quickly forgotten by most. If UF wants to return to its former self, it doesn’t have time to reflect. Undoubtedly, fans will be watching this spring to see who can replace Brantley, expecting the new quarterback to not simply fill the redshirt senior’s shoes but to lace up a much larger pair.

Fans will expect the new quarterback to take Florida to greater heights, because that’s what fans always expect. And so does Muschamp, though he knows going into his second season just how much work has to be done.

“In the last two years at the University of Florida we’re 15-11,” Muschamp said. “That’s unacceptable. … Sometimes I think you got to put your realistic glasses on where you are and what you are as a program right at this point. It’s not where we’re going to be very long. I can assure you of that.”

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@alligator.org.

Junior wide receiver Andre Debose smiles as he accepts the trophy for Most Valuable Player at the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2. in Jacksonville. Debose hasn't replicated the success he had in 2011. 

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