Sunday November 30th, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The last walk off the field as Florida’s head coach was long and slow, as fireworks shot into the sky and exploded overhead. Will Muschamp was arm-in-arm with his wife, Carol, the whole way. They disappeared into a Doak Campbell Stadium tunnel at 7:08 on Saturday night, and that might have been the semi-official time of death for his tenure if it weren’t for one more darkly comic, sideways twist to the whole deal. Muschamp’s final official act was not a 24-19 loss to Florida State. It was not yet another try-hard-but-fall-short effort fraught with self-inflicted damage. After four mercurial years and a firing, he still wasn’t done.

He had to do his TV show on Sunday.

“I’m not a very good negotiator,” Muschamp said. “That’ll be a blast.”

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The exasperated legions of Gators fans will place their ex-coach’s bargaining skills in the discard pile, right alongside his ability to generate offense and disciplined on-field play, and be done with it. All they know is they were victims again. This time it was at the hands of the unshakeable Seminoles, who endured four Jameis Winston interceptions and one special teams gaffe that led to a touchdown, and who once more treated all that commotion with the excitability of the walking undead. They moved right along. Realistically, the program’s 28th straight win and fifth undefeated regular season in program history weren’t sure things until the very last minute. Honestly, it would have been a surprise if it ended any other way.

Of course, the problem is that the same could be said for Florida. Three of Winston’s interceptions turned into mere field goals. The fourth turned into a missed kick, thanks mostly to 25 yards of penalties assessed to one Gators wide receiver on one play. That was part of 105 penalty yards overall, to go with the 13-of-32 passing performance from quarterback Treon Harris, who helped waste all the good work of that defense. No one is arguing Muschamp’s fate should be anything but what it is after a 28-21 run in Gainesville. There are many ways to encapsulate the failings of his tenure, and Saturday provided a few more options.

“We’ve had our opportunities,” Muschamp said. “You look at two other games where we had the game in hand and had opportunities to get it done. And we didn’t get it done. It falls on my shoulders, and that’s why they’re going to be looking for a coach.”

As if all of that wasn’t enough, consider this sliver buried deep below the skin after Saturday: Florida may have coached Florida State right into the game plan that gets it to the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Winston was not great, and he was outright bad right from the start, throwing two picks in the first four minutes and three in the first 15. His passer rating at the time of the third pick was -44.8, which is apparently a thing that can happen.

“That’s wild,” Winston said. “I was like, 'Wow.'”

“Just a hair off,” Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He was trying to force a play here and there, and you get out of rhythm.”

After Florida State’s Terrance Smith returned an interception 93 yards for a score to tilt momentum back to the defending national champs late in the first quarter -- one play after the third Winston pick -- the Seminoles quarterback made his way up the sideline tapping his chest. It was the universal sign for my fault. It was unclear if his teammates offered Winston the generally understood signal for you think?

On its very next offensive series, Florida State took corrective measures. It opened with four runs. That settled down its flailing quarterback and ignited a 12-play, 93-yard march to a score. All was well once Fisher and his staff decided it wasn’t even going to give Winston the opportunity to try to play hero. It put that on freshman tailback Dalvin Cook, who darted around for a career-high 144 yards, among others. Relying on a ground attack to do the same in the ACC title game against Georgia Tech seems like a very sound approach. Turn it over another four times next Saturday and there will be no 29th consecutive victory, not with the way the Yellow Jackets’ option erodes the clock and forces opponents to maximize possessions. “The trump card today was Dalvin Cook and the offensive line,” Fisher said. “[Winston] didn’t have his A-game. But we keep finding different guys.”

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Surely Florida and Muschamp will find no joy in helping their rival find its way, just one more insult added to a pile that scrapes the exosphere at this point. But there wasn’t much joy to be found in any of this. Recounting how Muschamp addressed the team after the game, Gators center Max Garcia cleared his throat. “He just told us that he was so proud of how we played,” Garcia said, before the emotion swelled up and cut his words off. He went silent for eight full seconds before someone asked another question.

“It was the first time we saw him emotional about the situation, because he was coaching his last game,” Florida linebacker Michael Taylor said of Muschamp. “He just told us that he loved us, he appreciated everything we did for him. We appreciate him more than he can even realize.”

He might have been fired, but Muschamp didn’t cheat his soon-to-be-former-employer. He was coaching to the end. Of the personal foul penalty freshman Gerald Willis incurred for giving Winston a shot on the sideline, Muschamp said, “If I were head coach, he’d be kicked off the team. Ridiculous.” Of the pass that deflected off tight end Tevin Westbrook and produced Florida State’s pick-six, he deadpanned, “Catch the ball. You can argue about it’s thrown in traffic and this, that and the other, but we put you on scholarship at Florida to catch it.” He had fallen, but he was going to go Boom all the way to the end.

Muschamp did joke when a reporter asked why he took so many downfield shots in vain on the last offensive series. “I get drilled for four years for running the ball, and all of a sudden we throw it, and I get drilled for that!” he said, incredulous but smiling. Then he ruefully recounted the last round of television duties. Beyond that, he talked about a laptop full of games and film cut-up in the same breath as he talked about taking some time to get away with Carol. He was excited for the next step, but he was in no hurry to get there.

“We did things the right way,” he said. “We didn’t win enough games.”

Muschamp’s last postgame postmortem took place in Room E0152 at Doak Campbell, a clammy, cramped space befitting a guy who ran out of room to fail. After he left it and marched back into the locker room, his wife took pictures with the state troopers who comprised their security detail for the day. This was goodbye. Florida State escaped unscathed again, and Muschamp coached his final game at Florida. It was the end everyone saw coming.

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