GatorZone.com Senior Writer
They are back to that place that has been scary for them in the post-Tebow era. Back to October.
And the recent fright has nothing to do with Halloween.
Florida polished off the September portion of its schedule on Saturday with a workmanlike 38-0 win over Kentucky, running their incredible win streak over the Wildcats to 26 games and pitching their first shutout against an SEC opponent in 11 years.
“Anytime you get a shutout, now, those things are hard to come by in this day and age of football regardless of who you’re playing,’’ Muschamp said. “I’m proud of the players for that.”
The Gators had three interceptions, went 12 of 17 on third down, scored all five times in the red zone, and got another good start from sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel (18 of 27 for 203 yards and one touchdown, one interception).
All in all, a pretty good day at the office.
The No. 14-ranked Gators improved to a perfect 12-0 in September the past three seasons and maintained the momentum they built in back-to-back SEC road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee the previous two weeks.
OK, here is the but … they are 7-11 the past two seasons after September, including 1-7 in October.
Driskel hasn’t been around that long, but he experienced enough a year ago to know he doesn’t want a repeat.
“Last October was rough,’’ he said. “We don’t really like to mention that around here.”
Florida walked off Florida Field on Saturday afternoon and into its bye week. The Gators don’t play again until No. 2-ranked LSU visits The Swamp on Oct. 6. The Florida-LSU game is always one to circle on the calendar because of the rivalry’s rich history and both schools’ tremendous success over the past decade.
But with Florida off to a fast start – the Gators lead the SEC East at 3-0 – this game has taken on even more meaning. The Gators are climbing the polls and are now considered a legitimate threat to win the East after those tough road wins over the Aggies and Vols.
Driskel looks more and more comfortable with each snap. First-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s fingerprints on the program are starting to show up more and more. Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are getting more out of the defense in Year 2.
Maybe the Gators really are back. Muschamp was asked if this season’s 3-0 start seemed different than last year’s after the win over the Vols. He was asked the same question about 4-0 on Saturday.
“Well, we’re a better team. You guys see it. We are a more physical team on both lines of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “We’re tied together better as far as what we are and what we want to be, because we’re better on both lines of scrimmage. I think we’re deeper. I think we’re more mature. I think we handle things a lot better. We’re a year older. We’re more experienced. I think all those things factor in when you are dealing with young people.”
Those young people now must deal with two weeks of buzz leading up to the LSU game. There was a similar sense the past two seasons when the 4-0 Gators faced Alabama. Two years ago they lost in Tuscaloosa 31-6. A year ago the Crimson Tide beat the Gators 38-10 in The Swamp.
The Gators simply were not as good. They also lost to LSU both years, including a 41-11 defeat in Baton Rouge last October.
Driskel doesn’t need to be reminded about the disparity between the SEC’s elite and the Gators the past two years. A wide-eyed Driskel replaced injured starter John Brantley in last season’s loss to Alabama. He took his lumps.
He said Saturday that the Gators are prepared to put up a better fight this October with games against LSU, at Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Georgia. LSU, South Carolina and Georgia are all currently ranked in the top eight.
“We are really confident going in this year,’’ Driskel said. “We feel like we can really close out. Last year we got outscored by these guys tremendously in the second half and the fourth quarter, and we’ve shown this year we are really a second-half team and that we can finish in the fourth quarter.”
The Gators continued their second-half dominance against Kentucky, outscoring the Wildcats 14-0 after halftime. The Gators have now outscored opponents 64-13 in the second half and 34-0 in the fourth quarter. They were outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter in SEC games last season.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Michael Taylor, who had one of Florida’s three interceptions Saturday, isn’t intimidated by the road ahead.
“We just have to keep doing the things we have done so far,’’ Taylor said. “We’re not going to change anything just because we have a different opponent.”
Sitting across the room from Taylor, senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter expressed the same attitude as Taylor. The Gators had the same mentality Saturday against the heavy underdog Wildcats.
“We were just able to do our job,’’ Hunter said. “It feels great knowing you had a bye week and LSU coming up and guys not even thinking about that right now and going out and focusing on Kentucky -- that was huge. That’s the maturity of this team compared to where it was last year. Last year guys would have been looking forward to the bye week and LSU.”
The Gators hope their deeper maturity, their road success in September, their renewed confidence leads to something special this October. They are ready to forget about the past.
Muschamp sounds confident they can do that.
“They understand what it takes to be successful. They understand when they practice well they usually play well. They get the results they want. All those things go back to maturity, experience. I do think we are a little more talented team than we were a year ago in some spots and some critical spots. We’ve got to continue to press forward. We are not where we want to be.”
Not yet. A few wins in October for a change could change that.