GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Jon Gruden was coaching his Super Bowl champion in Tampa Bay he had a phrase he oftentimes cited in press conferences and has since been known to go to for his audiences from the “Monday Night Football” booth as well.
"When you hold the football in your hand, you hold the hopes and the dreams of an entire organization."
Ask any football coach to name the two or three statistics that really, really matter and turnovers -- be it giveaways, takeaways or a combination of the two -- come up every time.
Possession of the ball means everything. Can’t win without it.
Just ask the Florida Gators, who last year turned the ball over 26 times, finished with a minus-12 giveaway-takeaway ratio that rated last in the Southeastern Conference and 114th in the nation and lost more games than any UF team since 1987.
Dreams were crushed.
Fast forward to 2012 when the Gators have been remarkably protective of the ball and it’s no coincidence that everything a college football team plays for remains out there for the taking. That includes the No. 1 objective on every Florida team’s wish list, the SEC Eastern Division title, which the third-ranked Gators (7-0, 6-0) can clinch by beating the rival and No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1) in their annual clash Saturday at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
“It’s something we take very seriously, starting with practice,” senior tailback Mike Gillislee said of UF”s ball security. “It’s something we talk about and work on every day.”
Maybe so, but UF's stinginess with the ball rarely comes up in conversation when the people talk about Florida’s surprising success this season. They talk about the defense and the turnovers it has forced; Gillislee and the potent rushing game; the development of quarterback Jeff Driskel; and what could very well be the best special teams in the country.
Here’s a test.
Quick, name UF’s turnovers this year.
- Fumble by flanker Omarius Hines in the opener against Bowling Green.
- An interception by Driskel against Kentucky.
- Fumbles by wide receiver Frankie Hammond and Driskel against LSU.
And that’s it.
Four turnovers in seven games (and none the last 10 quarters).
“If there’s one stat you really chart every week, it’s ball security,” UF offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “It’s evident that if you’re in the top 10 in the nation [in turnover ratio], then you’re probably going to be a team with a winning record.”
Remember when Driskel fumbled against LSU just before half to give the Tigers the ball inside the UF 10? Florida’s defense came up huge and held LSU to a field goal.
Last year, as good as the Gators were on defense, they were put in those types of positions too often. A defense can only step up so often.
But UF’s defense has been so good this year, and so opportunistic, it has helped take pressure off Driskel to feel like he has to make plays or maybe try to gamble on something that is not there.
“When you have a defense like we do, you don't have to force anything and you don't have to try to score on every play,” said Driskel, who has completed 67 percent of his passes for 929 yards, eight touchdowns and that one interception. “We really emphasized [turnovers] in the offseason and it's paid off and helped out a lot.”
Every day at practice, UF’s coaches put players through drills that accentuate ball security -- a turnover circuit, it’s called -- whether it’s swiping at the quarterbacks' hands while they're throwing or poking at ball carrier's arms when they're running.
It’s emphasized and then overemphasized.
“Keep it high and tight,” said wideout Solomon Patton, whose been clean on all 13 of his running plays this season when coming around for the quick (and tricky) handoff on the jet sweep. “That’s what the coaches tell us while they’re trying to rip it out.”
In 2012, the Gators are plus-11 in turnover ratio -- after forcing four and giving away none in the 44-11 win over South Carolina last weekend -- which is a testament to the offense and the defense.
“It’s huge because, No. 1, it’s less possessions for the other team. When you’re winning some of your time-of- possession battles, a lot of that has to do with an offense that can take care of the ball and maybe we can give them a few during a game,” UF defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Wednesday. “When you’re not having to play 80 or 85 plays and you’re now down in the 50s or low-60s, it minimizes their chances. That’s playing good, winning football as a team and that’s been a big thing for our team.”
Florida has won the turnover battle in six of its seven games. That seventh, at Texas A&M, was a 0-0 stalemate. UF left College Station ranked 46th in turnover ratio, but as a board in the South End Zone reminds the Gators each day they’ve steadily climbed in that category every week since: 24th to 17th to 16th to 14th and now 9th.
“It goes back to, what you emphasize is what's important,” Coach Will Muschamp said. “And you can't just talk about it, you have to drill it.”
That means constantly reminding them how precious the football is.
Or as a Gruden might say, it’s what dreams are made of.
And the Gators have been so good with the ball, they can still dream big.