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The Gators fed off head coach Will Muschamp's blue-collar attitude to go from 6-6 to 11-1 in the regular season.

Wednesday November 28, 2012Regular-Season Recap: 10 Reasons Why Gators Improved by 5 Wins

The Gators fed off head coach Will Muschamp's blue-collar attitude to go from 6-6 to 11-1 in the regular season.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When Will Muschamp called the Gators "soft" following a loss to Florida State at the end of his first season, it sped up a culture change that was already in motion inside the Florida football program.

The Gators held some of their most physical practices of the season in preparation for the Gator Bowl against Ohio State. The added intensity paid off. Florida avoided its first losing season in more than 30 years by beating the Buckeyes on New Year's Day in Jacksonville, a shot of optimism the program needed.

Besides the "soft" label Muschamp stamped his team with after the FSU loss, he offered another memorable quote the same night.

One with a more positive tone.

"I have a clear vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it,'' Muschamp said late on the night of Nov. 26, 2011. "I'm more excited today than the day I was hired. I know where we're headed. We're going to be fine."

In the immediate aftermath of a second consecutive loss to the Seminoles that kind of optimism didn't resonate much with Florida fans or the media.

But a year later it is obvious Muschamp knew what he was talking about. Sure, Muschamp was frustrated over the loss to FSU and the four turnovers that paved the way, but he understood that his first Florida team was far from his best. That would take more time.

Did most expect a five-game improvement in Year 2? No, but after the Gators' 37-26 win at FSU Saturday, Florida finished the regular season 11-1 after a 6-6 record last year.

The Gators are ranked No. 4 in the BCS and are almost certain to be headed to the Sugar Bowl.

How did the Gators return to national prominence so quickly in Muschamp's second season? Let's take a look at 10 reasons (ranked in no particular order):

TURNOVER MARGIN

The Gators were horrible in 2011 in this department, finishing last in the SEC in turnover margin at minus-12 (14 takeaways, 26 giveaways). The coaches and players were asked almost every week why the Gators weren't able to force more turnovers and answers were difficult to come by.

You've heard the old clichι what a difference a year makes, right? It made a huge difference for the Gators, who finished the regular season tied atop the SEC with Mississippi State at plus-17 in turnover margin (29 takeaways, 12 giveaways).

That is a one-season swing of plus-29, the second-best improvement in the country behind only Fresno State (plus-31). In Saturday's win over FSU, the Gators forced five turnovers and committed only one.

"You will win a bunch of games doing that,'' Muschamp said.

IMPROVED DEPTH

Florida's roster in Muschamp's first season was thinner than a supermodel on a diet.

The Gators lacked depth at several key positions, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines. The "man down, man up" motto the team relied on this season didn't pack the same punch due to a lack of experience and talent behind the first team.

However, true freshmen such as offensive lineman D.J. Humphries, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., and linebacker Antonio Morrison provided much-needed depth and saw significant playing time in Muschamp's second season.

BETTER QB PLAY

The Gators opened the season with sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett in a close battle to start. Driskel won primarily because he offered an added dimension with his ability to make plays with his legs.

Driskel wasn't spectacular but was steady enough to rely on his defense and special teams when big players weren't there. He rarely tried to force the issue and completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,471 yards, 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Driskel also rushed for 404 yards (after 270 yards of losses from sacks), second on the team.

And when Driskel was unable to play in a 23-0 win over Jacksonville State, Brissett filled in admirably by finishing 14 of 22 for 154 yards and a touchdown. Again, not spectacular but serviceable, which is what the Gators needed from their young quarterbacks in the first year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who injected creativity into the play-calling to minimize mistakes by Driskel.

In fact, Driskel's three picks were the only interceptions thrown all season – two came in the loss to Georgia – marking the lowest season total for the Gators in records dating back to 1946.

GILLISLEE PROVES CAPABLE

One of the biggest question marks entering the season was whether tailback Mike Gillislee, a three-year backup, was the kind of back a team could build the offense around.

Answer: Yes. Gillislee rushed for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF running back to eclipse 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. Gillislee was at his best in two of the Gators' signature wins.

In a 14-6 win over LSU in October, Gillislee carried 34 times for 146 yards, and in Saturday's victory at FSU, the senior from Deland rushed for 140 yards on 24 carries. Gillislee has five 100-yard games this season and needs only five yards to surpass Errict Rhett (1,109 yards in 1991) for the seventh-best single season in school history.

SOFT NO MORE

Soon after the Gators walked off the field following their win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, they met new strength-and-conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman.

Dillman came to UF from the IMG Academy in Bradenton and immediately implemented an Olympic-style weightlifting regimen aimed at improving lower-body and core muscle. The players responded and showed up for fall camp noticeably bigger and stronger, especially the offensive and defensive linemen.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher noticed the difference.

"They were better than us on the line of scrimmage,'' he said Saturday. "That's a good football team. They are strong up front."

FOURTH-QUARTER DOMINANCE

The Gators lost the close games in Muschamp's first season, often wearing down in the final quarter with the game still hanging in the balance.

They owned the fourth quarter this season, highlighted by their 24-point outburst at FSU after trailing 20-13 at the start of the final 15 minutes.

Florida won three times with fourth-quarter comebacks and outscored opponents 115-29 The 115 points were the most the Gators scored in any quarter and the 29 points allowed were the fewest of any quarter.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The play of the year came on special teams when Loucheiz Purifoy blocked a punt against Louisiana that was returned for the game-winning touchdown by Jelani Jenkins with only two seconds left.

Marcus Roberson's 50-yard punt return against FSU was big, as was Sharrif Floyd's blocked field goal at Vanderbilt. Florida's special teams contributed significantly in nearly every game.

As for the kicking game, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one-two tandem than placekicker Caleb Sturgis and punter Kyle Christy. Sturgis made 23 of 27 field goals – included 3-for-3 from 50 yards or more – and Christy led the conference in punting with a 46.1-yard average. Christy had 26 punts inside the 20-yard line and 25 kicks of 50 or more yards.

ORANGE CRUSH DEFENSE

Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn arrived with stellar reputations as teachers and builders of strong defensive units. The Gators were good on defense in their first year in Gainesville but great in Year 2.

Florida ranked second in the SEC in total defense (282.6 yards per game), scoring defense (12.9 points per game), second in rushing defense (96.9 ypg), first in pass efficiency defense and interceptions (19).

The Gators played with an aggressive mindset and were able to overcome a season-ending foot injury to cornerback Cody Riggs, a nagging knee injury to defensive end Dominique Easley and multiple injuries to linebacker Jenkins. They also did it without the services of the player expected to be their best pass rusher, defensive end Ronald Powell, who was lost for the season due to a knee injury suffered in the spring game.

THE BUY-IN FACTOR

Any time there is a coaching change and the roster is young, there is going to be some attrition. The Gators had their share of that in Muschamp's first season.

However, the players who remained bought into his system and responded to the challenge he delivered following last year's loss to FSU. Make no mistake: this is a tough team that feeds off the energy of Muschamp and his staff.

In two years the Gators have gone more from a finesse-and-speed-oriented team under Urban Meyer to an in-your-face physical team under Muschamp. The Gators didn't always win pretty, but when the game was on the line in the second half, their toughness usually took over. Florida came from behind to win eight games and showed the kind of mental and physical toughness that it takes to compete in the today's old-school SEC.

FILLING ROLES

This is a Florida team that lacks some of the big-time stars of the Meyer era. There is no Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes or Joe Haden.

Still, there are some excellent players who will play on Sundays one day like safety Matt Elam, tight end Jordan Reed, linebacker Jon Bostic and Floyd. Those players did their jobs and provided enough star power for the younger players to rally around.

Purifoy looks like a future All-American. Sixth-year senior James Wilson returned and proved a critical piece of the offensive line's resurgence. Center Jon Harrison developed into a team spokesman. Receivers Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar had their moments. Omarius Hines and Trey Burton gave the offense some much-needed diversity at times.

The Gators aren't loaded with household names but they proved that you can go a long way with a blue-collar work ethic and everyone working from the same page.

 

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