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Wednesday August 31, 2011Countdown To Kickoff: Gators Ready For A New Start

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When they flip on “SportsCenter” or visit national websites devoted to college football, there’s very little talk about the Gators.

Oklahoma or Alabama or LSU or Miami or some other team instead of Florida seems to be grabbing most of the national attention. Some of the headlines are good. Some of them are the kind you want to avoid.

Junior linebacker Jon Bostic has noticed the phenomenon and calls it “The Forgotten Gators.”

“A lot of people are overlooking us right now,’’ Bostic said. “You can just see it. A lot of people from everywhere are just overlooking us.’’

Bostic hesitated for a moment, and then added: “It doesn’t bother us at all. That’s how we’re trying to look at it.’’

The Gators hope to do something about it Saturday in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. Nine months after Will Muschamp was named head coach, the Gators finally get to run into The Swamp for the first game of Muschamp’s tenure.

The preseason has been a mix of anticipation and mystery. With Charlie Weis and his pro-style offense in place, and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn installing a more complex system than a year ago, fans are wondering what kind of team they will see Saturday.

If you read fan message boards, you know they want to see a team that plays crisper than in last year’s win over Miami (Ohio) in the season opener. The Gators won, but there was more talk after the game about high snaps and dropped passes than Florida’s 21st consecutive season-opening victory.

While the Gators started 4-0, they lost three consecutive games in the middle of the season as the offense never seemed to find a rhythm with first-year starting quarterback John Brantley, a classic drop-back passer, trying to run a spread-option attack.

With Muschamp and Co. aboard, Brantley and the Gators have a clean slate.

And if it makes fans feel any better, the Gators want the same thing they do: a good performance and a win on Saturday. If that happens, then everyone can agree the Muschamp Era kicked off the right way.

“I know we’re eager to go out on the field and play the game we love and try to change that 8-5 from last year,’’ said redshirt freshman receiver Quinton Dunbar said. “I can’t predict the season, but I just know we’ve been working hard all camp, all spring, and we’re looking forward to a great season.’’

As for the new sheriff in town, Muschamp walked into his office the first day on the job with a plan for the first 100 days. Once that phase ended, he moved onto a plan for the entire season.

A fiery leader who prides himself on hard work and organization, Muschamp is ready for the season opener as much as anyone. He said Wednesday that you’ll probably see some of that sideline intensity he is known for come Saturday.

“I plan on being emotional, that’s kind of me as far as the game is concerned and the competition,’’ Muschamp said. “Don’t let it cloud your judgment on game day.”

If you listen to what buzz there is surrounding the Gators, most of the talk is centered on Brantley and how well the offense will perform under Weis. Brantley, who has shown much more confidence in camp than near the end of last season, is ready for the new Gators to be unveiled and expects fans to approve.

I think they’re going to be very pleased. We’ve had a great camp, a great three weeks, and we’re excited just to get out there and play against someone else besides ourselves,’’ Brantley said. “We’re looking forward to showing our fans what new Gator football is doing.”

Brantley has the support of Weis, who has handed out nothing but compliments to his newest quarterback in their time together.

Brantley has picked up the offense and despite missing some practice time last week due to a sore back, he is full-go for Saturday physically and mentally.

“Where he is right now doesn’t surprise any of us. He’s continued to progress,’’ Weis said. “Fortunately for him, this system fits his physical qualities better than the last one. He has the mental capabilities to do all the things that I like to do.

“The more he shows me mentally, the more freedom I can give him when it comes to getting out of bad plays at the line of scrimmage.”

In Muschamp’s first game, the Gators face an FAU team coached by 77-year-old Howard Schnellenberger, who announced recently that he is retiring after this season.

The Gators are aware of FAU’s talent and pro-style attack similar to Florida’s. Muschamp faced the Owls last year when he was defensive coordinator at Texas, and after a close first half, the Longhorns went on to a 51-17 win. The Gators have watched tape of that game to prepare for Saturday.

Muschamp talked earlier this week about how everything changes starting Saturday. No matter what has been written or said up until kickoff, the final score will ultimately be the way the past nine months are judged.

Weis, who knows all about the scrutiny that comes with being a head coach, understands that’s part of the deal as well.

“Anytime you’re putting in a new system, you really want to go and try to play as clean as you can in the first game,’’ Weis said. “You want to minimize your mental mistakes, you want to minimize your line of scrimmage penalties, you want to take care of the football, and obviously you want to move the ball and score touchdowns.’’

In about 72 hours “The Forgotten Gators’’ come out from hiding.

When they do, it will be show time. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins said the Gators are ready. Ready for a new start. Ready to open a new era. Ready for people to start talking about the Gators again.

I have complete confidence in the team,’’ Jenkins said. “I like the talent we have and I’m looking forward to it. I think Gator fans all over the country are trying to figure out what we have and we’re ready to show them.’’


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