COLUMBIA, S.C. | They aren’t going to a bowl game. They’re not going to have a winning record.
The disappointing outcome to this sad season has now been determined.
Other than pride, there’s little left for the Florida Gators to play for the next two Saturdays.
To their credit, the Gators played harder and were more competitive Saturday than they were in back-to-back blowout losses the past two weeks. But, the result was ultimately the same, another SEC loss, this time 28-20 to South Carolina, for Florida’s fifth consecutive defeat in a season that has been turned upside down by suspensions and injuries.
At 3-6 overall and 3-5 in the SEC, the Gators will not be playing in the postseason. Instead, the focus now turns to athletic director Scott Stricklin’s search for a new head football coach — and a new beginning.
At least the new coach, whoever he turns out to be, would have seen Saturday this depleted team may be down, but still has some fight left in it.
“Like the way these guys fought,” interim head coach Randy Shannon said. “They hung in there. Nobody quit. That tells you something about this program. Real excited about it. I told those guys in that locker room, this Gator football team, this Gator program, is in good hands because of what those guys showed today. They never quit.”
Down 28-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Gators rallied and had a chance to possibly tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the closing minutes. But a third-down pass by Feleipe Franks was tipped and intercepted by South Carolina nickelback Jamyest Williams on the UF 48 with 1:06 to play.
UF had made it a one-possession game with a 1-yard TD run by Mark Thompson with 3:43 to play, following a 63-yard pass from Franks to tight end Moral Stephens.
“Tough one today for, being a part of this Gator family,” Shannon said. “Guys went there and fought today. We did a lot of great things. We did a lot of things we need to keep improving on. Had a chance at the end of the game. We worked on it, in a two-minute situation and have a chance to go up and score points and go for two at the end of the game and just couldn’t get it done.”
They hung in there despite losing starting quarterback Malik Zaire to an injured knee in the second quarter and committing some crucial turnovers, the biggest being cornerback C.J. Henderson’s fumble at the goal line when it looked like he was going to score on a pick-six that would have tied the game in the first quarter.
“We had opportunities, couple turnovers on defense that we couldn’t capitalize with on offense,” Shannon said. “But like anything else, we have to keep guys out of the end zone and when we have an opportunity to put points on the board, we have to. Those things happen in the game.
The Gamecocks added a touchdown later in the first quarter on a 24-yard run by Mon Denson.
At that point, it appeared the Gators might be susceptible to a third consecutive blowout loss.
But every time it looked like the Gamecocks (7-3, 5-3 SEC) were about to pull away, the Gators found a way to stay within striking distance.
Down 21-6 late in the first half, the Gators gained some momentum with an 18-yard TD run by Lamical Perine to make it a one possession game going into halftime.
When Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley scored on a 7-yard run late in the third quarter, the Gators appeared on the brink again.
Then they rallied in the fourth quarter and put themselves in a possession to possibly force overtime.
It was a much better and much more competitive performance by the Gators than what they showed the previous two weeks, when they lost to Georgia and Missouri by a combined score of 87-23.
As for moving forward, the Gators may have to do it without Zaire. His knee injury will be re-evaluated Sunday. There’s a chance he could be out for the final two games.
It’s just more adversity for a team that’s been hit with it week after week throughout the season.
While it was another tough loss for the Gators, it was a sweet victory for the Gamecocks and former UF head coach Will Muschamp.
“We made plays when we needed to make plays,” Muschamp said. “Give Florida credit. Those kids have been through an awful lot. They’ve got a bunch of good kids in that locker room and it’s a tough situation they’re going through right now.”