GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They will blow out of the tunnel and onto Florida Field on Saturday afternoon full of energy, gusto and of course, swagger, that modern-era word so often used to define team confidence.
The No. 10-ranked Gators have reason to feel good about themselves. They have earned it with a 4-0 start that includes back-to-back SEC road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee. A 4-0 start that has ignited renewed interest and memories of days gone by.
But what really matters is how the Gators feel when they walk back through that tunnel Saturday after their sold-out clash with No. 4-ranked LSU. The Tigers own the nation's longest regular-season win streak (18 games) and have knocked off the Gators the past two years.
If Florida is the team swaggering off the field, you can be sure it was a good day for the Gators, not a "hard day" as defensive coordinator Dan Quinn recalled this week when asked to reflect on last year's game, a 41-11 loss in Baton Rouge that was over way too early.
The Gators not only lost by 30, but they gave up twice as many yards as they gained -- 453 to 213 -- and managed only nine first downs.
The loss was the second in what turned into a four-game SEC losing streak, a stretch that revealed to Florida coach Will Muschamp how far the Gators had to climb to rejoin the league's elite.
A win over LSU on Saturday could shorten that climb significantly.
"Games like this -- LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia -- they all tend to tell you where you’re going to be in the season and how good you really are," Gators sophomore fullback Hunter Joyer said. "A lot of people still doubt us and don’t really believe in this Florida team, so I think we need to make a statement."
Muschamp refuses to be swept up in the hype and doesn't want to put too much emphasis on Saturday's game. Win or lose, Florida still has perhaps the nation's toughest remaining schedule and nothing in the SEC East race will be determined.
However, he does expect his team to compete better against a rough-and-tumble LSU team that dominated the Gators at the line of scrimmage last season a week after Alabama did the same to Florida in a 28-point win at The Swamp.
"I think we’re stronger, I think we handle adversity a lot better, which when you play games like this there’s going to be some adversity,'' Muschamp said. "I think anybody that was a part of watching us, and being a part of our organization, last year to this year, will notice a night-and-day difference between our football team.
"I think we’ve made tremendous improvements in a short period of time. I’m not trying to say that we’ve arrived by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think we’ve improved and we’ve addressed the things we need to address.”
LSU coach Les Miles can see that improvement on film.
"This team is well-prepared, more competitive,” Miles said of the Gators. "They look like a very quality Florida team. They’re certainly very representative of some of the best teams Florida’s had.”
The biggest difference in this year's Gators team is a more physical approach on the offensive and defensive lines, a deeper roster and the steady progress of sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Driskel was injured and did not play last year against LSU. In four games this season, Driskel is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and has shown glimpses of why he was considered the top quarterback in the 2011 recruiting class by several respected recruiting services.
He understands why many view Saturday as an important gauge for the Gators.
"Going in last year we definitely felt like we had a shot as well,'' Driskel said. "We didn’t go in last year saying hopefully we don’t lose by 20, or we’ll try to keep it close. We go into every game thinking that we have a shot, knowing that we have a shot.
"This year we’re definitely confident. It'll be a lot closer, that’s for sure. It won’t be like last year.''
Facing an LSU defense that features eight regulars up front, including highly touted defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, offensive coordinator Brent Pease said it's imperative the Gators find a way to buy Driskel more time by moving him around in the pocket.
Much of that responsibility falls onto Florida's revamped offensive line, a unit Pease is confident can get the job done based on the way it has played early in the season.
"I think they have improved,'' Pease said. "We went from a big-sack game [at Texas A&M] to no sacks [at Tennessee]. They're always up for the challenge. That’s how those guys are. They don’t complain. They’re company-work guys."
LSU's defense is ranked fourth nationally, surrendering just 217.8 yards per game -- 83 rushing and 134.8 passing. The Gators are averaging 407.5 yards per game, so reaching their season average is a tall task on paper.
"I mean, they’re good,'' Pease said. "This is, I guess, a defining moment to see where we’re at and who we’ve got to play and how well we’ve got to play.”
Miles, who has the Tigers off to a 5-0 start for the fourth consecutive season and fifth time in his eight years, wants to see his team play better than it did in a 38-22 win over Towson last week.
First-year LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, like Driskel for the Gators, continues to learn on the job. The Georgia transfer has thrown for 1,016 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Quinn expects the same kind of balanced offensive attack that LSU usually throws at opponents. Mettenberger's strong right arm is a concern since from what Quinn has seen on film the Tigers are taking more shots down the field than a year ago.
"I think there was probably about 20 plays that were over 20 yards, something along those lines,'' Quinn said. "Any time you play teams that are really effective running the ball ... sometimes people will try and bring an extra safety down and they're going to try and take some shots to open things up."
LSU will take its shots. The Gators will take theirs. At stake is a key SEC victory and of course, an extra dose of swagger heading into the heart of October.