Florida score, takeaways, reaction: Gators hit rock bottom after being routed by South Carolina

By Adam Silverstein
November 6, 2021
Florida score, takeaways, reaction: Gators hit rock bottom after being routed by South Carolina

Image Credit: GatorsFB on Twitter

The questions have already been asked, and the statements have already been made. Apparently, there is no stopping the downward spiral that is the Florida Gators’ 2021 season. Florida hit rock bottom Saturday night in Columbia, South Carolina, as it was annihilated 40-17 by the South Carolina Gamecocks despite the Gators entering the game as 20-point favorites.

Florida was beaten soundly on both ends of the field. Its defense was a sieve, giving up 316 yards in the first half with equal deficiencies stopping the run and pass. In all, the 40 points allowed were most in series history, and the 459 yards were the most gained by South Carolina all season. USC entered averaging just 20.9 points per game. UF’s offense was basically non-existent with head coach Dan Mullen’s mind-boggling game plan falling apart just over a quarter into the contest.

The Gators fell to 4-5 (2-5 SEC) starting a season below .500 through nine games for the third time since 2013. Will Muschamp should have been fired after that 2013 season (4-8), though a rash of significant injuries at least gave him and Florida an excuse that year. Jim McElwain was fired before UF could reach its ninth game in 2017 (4-7).

As such, Saturday marked Florida’s first three-game losing streak since that 2017 season. It was also one of the Gators’ worst overall losses in years given the circumstances and talent disparity. In fact, Florida has now lost to South Carolina and Kentucky in the same season for the first time since 1936.

Though UF was dealing with illness issues amid a flu that ravaged the team — it had 20-30 players missing practice throughout the week — the Gamecocks entered with just 79 scholarship players on the roster. And they beat Florida while starting a fifth-year, third-string transfer quarterback in the middle of a huge rebuild for head coach Shane Beamer with their lone SEC win entering the game coming 21-20 against a Vanderbilt team that the Gators annihilated 42-0 earlier this season.

So what exactly happened as Florida got embarrassed at South Carolina? Let’s take a look at some takeaways from the game.

1. An absurd plan: No matter what you think about Mullen, even when questioning individual play calls or in-game coaching decisions, the one thing that can almost always be counted on is a solid offensive game plan. Given the Gators’ massive talent departures in the passing game entering the season, Mullen realized Florida needed to be a run-first team, a decision that led to UF entering the game sixth nationally with 242.6 yards rushing per game. South Carolina entered with the 88th ranked rushing defense in the nation, allowing 168.9 yards per game. So, obviously, the stage was set for the Gators to go nuts on the ground. Right?

Wrong. Florida did not run the ball over its first 10 plays of the game. It only attempted 10 runs in the first half, many of them being by redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones. Senior running back Dameon Pierce, who has carved up defenses all season, only had one touch out of the backfield through the first 30 minutes. Instead, the game plan called for Jones to inexplicably throw deep balls the entire first half. While he actually connected on a couple, he’s proven to be neither accurate nor consistent enough to rely on his arm for the duration of the game.

So why exactly was this the Gators’ plan? Why did Florida not begin trying to establish the run until after it only amassed 18 yards on the ground in the first half and opened the final 30 minutes trailing by 20 points on the road? These are unanswerable questions for a coach who — again, despite some questionable individual decision making — normally at least has a good idea of what to do offensively entering a game.

Jones, who entered the game with the flu, completed just 17 of 30 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, but he committed a back-breaking fumble returned for a touchdown to end the first half and threw a horrible interception in the second half. Pierce ended up with six carries for 39 yards, five of which came in the second half. Redshirt senior wide receiver Justin Shorter was the best offensive player with five receptions for 92 yards, 83 of which came on the first two series of the game thanks to a 52-yard reception.

2. A terrible decision: Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham should have been relieved of his duties after the disastrous unit he put together last season. The Gators should have made significant defensive adjustments and potentially announced Grantham’s end-of-season departure (at a minimum) after their inexplicable loss to an undermanned LSU team a few weeks ago. Deciding otherwise in both of those circumstances looks worse with each passing game, particularly after Florida was torn apart for 316 yards in the first half against a South Carolina team that entered ranked 114th nationally in total offense, averaging 327.9 yards per game.

The Gamecocks had huge gains of 54 yards (run), 39 yards (run) and 50 yards (reception) in the first half alone. They added another 40-yard run in the second half along with numerous other back-breaking plays, even when the Gators actually had them backed up behind the sticks. South Carolina outgained Florida by 119 yards, the first time UF has lost the yardage battle this season. Many pointed to this being the Gators’ worst loss in a key game since the 2014 failure against Missouri. What’s notable about that game is the Tigers gained only 119 yards — total — in that contest.

It appears clear given defections of defensive prospects that Mullen planned to let Grantham run out his contract and move on after the season. That decision has proven to be a horrendous one given the defense had already quit on its embattled coordinator. There have been zero adjustments over the last few weeks. The Gators continue to get eaten alive by the counter and have not improved one iota in terms of making key tackles. The Gamecocks got whatever they wanted on the ground, and that third-string QB Jason Brown, making his first career start as an FCS transfer, obliterated the secondary in the first half.

Florida’s offense has been troublesome all season, but after starting hot, the defense has been an absolute train wreck. Given Mullen is an offensive coach and Grantham is one of the highest-paid assistants in the country, that failure falls on both men: Grantham for not making enough adjustments scheme or personnel wise to fix what’s been ailing the program, and Mullen because he chose to keep Grantham when the pressure was on to fire him last season, which puts the onus squarely on the head coach for not making the replacement.

3. A team going nowhere: Perhaps the worst takeaway coming out of this game is the Gators appearing rudderless moving forward. Florida has lost four of its last five games. It is now 4-8 in its last 12 games with a 2-8 mark against Power Five competition.

The Gators are a mess in all three phases. Their roster is at a talent deficit compared to the top teams in the SEC and across the nation, and help is not coming soon given its Class of 2022 is ranked in the 20s, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings.

If Mullen does wind up changing a significant portion of his coaching staff, assistants joining the program will be taking significant risks unless there is massive assurance of Mullen’s long-term tenure provided by athletic director Scott Stricklin. And given Mullen’s performance this season, his off-field faux pas and Stricklin’s own issues — the controversy surrounding the women’s basketball program and continued poor performance of the men’s basketball team — that may be a tough sell.

The Gators may well finish 2021 missing a bowl game for the third time in the last nine seasons. That had not previously happened once without Florida on probation since 1986. The end result is a massively changed perspective on UF football, both the team as it is comprised and the program as a whole. It has clearly been surpassed by Georgia in the SEC East, and it is on the verge — it’s probably there already — of second-class status among SEC and national powers.

That is not all Mullen’s fault, of course. But he was brought in to fix what ailed the Gators, and just like the two coaches that preceded him, everything appears to have fallen apart after a changing of the guard brought a few years of success and optimism.

4. Odds and ends: Florida is now 29-10-3 all-time against South Carolina, falling to 12-8-1 in Columbia with its first series loss since 2017 … UF is now 7-11 when being outrushed by an opponent and 25-6 against unranked teams under Mullen … it’s the second straight game in which the Gators failed to score 24+ points after doing so in 32 of their prior 36 games … UF was outgained for the first time this season, 459-340 … Florida has scored in 419 consecutive games, an NCAA record

5. What it means / what’s next? Florida will still be favored to win its remaining three games, starting with it hosting Samford next Saturday. The Gators remain two wins away from bowl eligibility but were supposed to be on the precipice of that after beating the Gamecocks on Saturday. Alas. Outside of the Samford game, which yes, Florida should win handily, there’s no telling what could happen at Missouri or vs. Florida State in the final two games of the season. The Gators have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the nation from week to week as proven once again in this loss.

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