5 bold predictions for Florida-South Carolina Muschamp Bowl
In my first stab at bold predictions, I swung and missed about as often as Tim Tebow on the diamond. But in the spirit of Tebow, I’m going to keep swinging away (until they cut me).
The big storyline surrounding this week’s Florida-South Carolina game — aside from SEC East title implications — is the return of Will Muschamp to Gainesville. Muschamp succeeded Urban Meyer in 2011 and coached the Gators through the 2014 season when he was fired. One of the biggest issues of Muschamp’s tenure was the lack of a productive offense.
Gators fans aren’t going to like that Muschamp comes into The Swamp with more certainty in his quarterback and his offense than Jim McElwain’s squad.
Freshman QB Jake Bentley has the Gamecocks on a three-game winning streak since taking over the starting job. Florida is looking to pick up the pieces after a 31-10 thumping at Arkansas in Week 10. The Gators lead the SEC East, but will have to hope that backup quarterback Austin Appleby will provide the offense a spark it desperately needs.
Here are five bold predictions for the Muschamp Bowl:
1. Appleby will be an improvement on Luke Del Rio: In the days following Florida’s 13-6 win over Vanderbilt in Week 5, Appleby’s second start, a media narrative started that the Gators’ offense would benefit from Del Rio’s return. Due to the LSU postponement, however, Del Rio did not get back on the field until Week 7 against Missouri. He was noticeably rusty against the Tigers, turning in his weakest performance of the season (18-of-38, 236 yards, TD, 3 INT).
Del Rio didn’t show much improvement against Georgia (15-of-25, 131 yards, TD, INT) or Arkansas, when he injured his shoulder (19-of-37, 229 yards, 2 INT). It’s not a high bar to clear, but expect Appleby to look better than Del Rio did over the past three weeks.
2. Antonio Callaway will finally break off a long punt return: Florida’s top pass-catcher was an electrifying punt returner in his freshman season, averaging 15.5 yards per return with two touchdowns and a long of 85 yards. This year, however, he’s made more errors than highlights, and his average is under 4 yards per return.
Callaway identified the problem as getting ahead of himself.
“I’m trying to run without the ball,” he said. “I see a hole and I leave without the ball. It’s always been like one block away, one man away. It’s going to click.”
South Carolina has had problems on special teams. This is the week it clicks for Callaway.
3. Eddy Pineiro gets a shot at 60-plus: In the movie “Waterboy,” there’s a recurring joke around the line “Last game of the year, Brent. Can’t hold back anything now.”
Florida has benefitted this season from having a relatively reliable kicker in Eddy Pineiro. He’s 3-of-3 from 50-or-more yards, with his longest being 54 yards. If the Gators wind up in no-man’s land around midfield and face fourth down, they should let Pineiro and his big leg get a shot at a long field goal.
He’s YouTube famous for making 70-yard field goals, might as try a long one in the last home game of the year.
4. Hayden Hurst will be the game’s leading receiver: Hurst is a Jacksonville native who had interest in walking on as Gator, but was told there weren’t any spots open for him on the team. He became a Gamecock instead.
“I was trying to come up to pick schools. Florida was one of my choices, but they said they didn’t have room for me,” he told The State’s Ben Breiner. “So I figured, if they didn’t want me, I could come here and try and play against them.”
With 35 catches for 426 yards, Hurst is one of the top pass-catchers playing in Saturday’s game. With Florida missing its top two linebackers, Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, he’s also a matchup headache waiting to happen.
The motivated tight end is primed for a big day.
5. Will Muschamp will get the last laugh: The Gators are banged up, trying to figure out what happened last week in Arkansas and about to close out a lackluster home schedule with a nooner.
Meanwhile, you can bet that Muschamp will have the Gamecocks fired up. Muschamp is saying the right things to the media this week, downplaying his personal revenge factor, but this is Coach Boom we’re talking out. Muschamp will have his defense ready to shut down Florida’s struggling offense.
Boom is not the only one motivated by the return to The Swamp. Watch for offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who was on Muschamp’s staff at Florida in 2014, to call a creative game and show Gators fans that his offense works just fine.
While the win over LSU in 2012 might look more impressive on the resume, Saturday’s win over the Gators is The Swamp moment that Muschamp will remember most fondly.