As soon as Jeff Driskel kneeled down in the victory formation inside Neyland Stadium Saturday, you could see an enormous weight just fall off of Will Muschamp’s shoulders.
His body drenched, shirt untucked and hair tangled, Muschamp couldn’t find enough people to hug, as the clock ticked down to zero and Florida grabbed its eighth straight victory over rival Tennessee with a 37-20 rout on Rocky Top.
Muschamp had been counted out -- by his own fans no less -- and fielded a team that entered the season with so many questions and so much uncertainty. But for the second straight week, he was the one raising his fists victoriously. He was the one emphatically signing his school’s fight song after the game.
He was the one with the tougher team.
Think about that last sentence for a second. That’s not something you could say about Florida since Tim Tebow barreled his way through opponents for the orange-and-blue. For the past two seasons, the Gators have looked more mushy than mighty. Even Muschamp called his team soft after that ugly 21-7 loss to Florida State to conclude the 2011 regular season.
But the 2012 Gators actually have some bite, and have become true contenders in the SEC East.
Sure, it’s only been three games, but unlike the last two seasons, the Gators have improved each week. They went from stumbling through a 27-14 win against overmatched Bowling Green to pulling off back-to-back, come-from-behind victories in hostile environments on the road.
After trailing at halftime against the Texas A&M and Tennessee, the Gators combined to outscore both teams 37-6. Against Tennessee, the Gators out-gained the Vols 379-120, including gaining 227 yards in the third and allowing just five in the fourth, in the second half.
New strength coach Jeff Dillman is the mastermind behind the Gators increased toughness and stamina, while the Gators' swelling confidence and their mental edge have come from players buying into Muschamp’s plan and following through when the criticism piled up.
Now, this team is creeping up the East ladder. It has a quality quarterback in Driskel, who has grown up in front of the SEC’s eyes, has a real downhill running back in Mike Gillislee, who leads the SEC in rushing, the defense has been nearly unbeatable in the second half, and this squad has attitude.
Last year, the Gators rarely showed much toughness in pressure situations. This year, the Gators own pressure situations. You can question the overall talent Tennessee and Texas A&M have, but there’s no denying that Florida has shown more in the intangibles department than either Georgia or South Carolina through the first three weeks.
Georgia is still a more complete team overall, while South Carolina’s defense could give Florida’s offense fits, especially up front, but to count the Gators out of the East race is just silly.
The Bulldogs haven’t beaten Florida twice in a row since winning three straight from 1987-89, while South Carolina doesn’t know if starting quarterback Connor Shaw can even make it through the rest of the season with his fractured shoulder. Those factors right there play in Florida's favor at this point.
So what about the SEC in general?
Well, that might be a bit of a stretch right now. The Gators have been good, but they still have a ways to go before getting close to Alabama or LSU’s level. They just aren’t built like either team, and likely won't get close in 2012.
We'll find out just how far -- or close -- Florida is on Oct. 6, when the Tigers head to the Swamp.
For now, though, Florida is slowly starting to play the kind of ball you expect from the Gators. They aren’t pushovers and they aren’t soft.
And they’re only getting better.