- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Even during some of the darkest moments last season, Will Muschamp had a very clear vision of what he wanted this Florida football program to be.
Envisioning it was the easy part. Getting here was the hard part.
And while Muschamp himself would tell you that the No. 2 Gators are still a long way from being a finished project, they’ve made the kind of transformation that few teams in the SEC make in a year’s time.
Their 44-11 dissection of No. 7 South Carolina on Saturday at the Swamp was another reminder of what playing good defense, playing even better special teams and capitalizing on mistakes can do for a football team.
That, and a blend of physicality and mental toughness that was missing a year ago in Gator Land.
“There’s no mad recipe for what we’re doing,” Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. “It’s simple. We’re just playing physical and out-dominating the person in front of us.”
It remains to be seen whether these Gators (7-0, 6-0 SEC) are a legitimate national championship threat, but this much is clear: They’re doing all the things it takes to win a title.
In fact, they could clinch the Eastern Division title next week in Jacksonville, Fla., with a win over bitter rival Georgia.
A year ago at this point, the Gators were merely trying to survive. They were on their way to going 0-for-October. They were getting mauled in the fourth quarter by SEC foes. They weren’t forcing turnovers. They weren’t making anything happen at quarterback, and they weren’t very physical.
On top of it all, there was a toughness element missing.
“I outlined for our coaches in late July what our program needed to be,” said Muschamp, whose Gators were 0-6 last season against teams that finished the season with a winning record. “We needed to get production out of our defense and special teams and help our offense in a new year, a new scheme and a new system.
“Right now, we’re doing what it takes to win football games, and that’s the bottom line. That’s all I care about.”
On Saturday, the Gators jumped out to a 21-3 lead despite having just 29 total yards of total offense at the time. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel threw a career-high four touchdown passes but finished with only 93 passing yards.
As a team, Florida was held to a season-low 183 yards in total offense.
Driskel conceded that the Gators needed to be better at hitting more passes down the field. Then again, he only attempted 16 passes.
“We didn’t throw the ball that much because we didn’t have to,” said Driskel, who has thrown eight touchdowns and one interception this season. “When you’re winning ballgames by 33 [points], that’s pretty good. It doesn’t get any better than 7-0.”
The Gators have owned the fourth quarter this season, although Saturday’s game had long since been over by the time the fourth quarter arrived. In SEC games, they’ve outscored opponents 51-13. That’s after being outscored 72-22 in the fourth quarter of SEC games last season.
It’s been a similar story in the turnover department.
The Gators got four Saturday. Three of those came in the first half and led to 21 points.
For the season, Florida is now plus-11 in turnover margin. The Gators have forced 15 and lost just four. A year ago, they finished 113th nationally in turnover margin at minus-12. They forced 14 and lost 26.
Equally important, the Gators have been masterful when it comes to making adjustments at halftime, both offensively and defensively.
Florida didn’t have any success moving the ball in the first half against South Carolina’s defense. But first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease tweaked a few things, got the ball out on the perimeter a little more and took advantage of some things the Gamecocks were doing.
The result was a 10-play, 59-yard touchdown drive coming out of halftime to put the Gamecocks away. It was a drive that featured a little bit of Trey Burton in the Wildcat package and culminated with a double handoff to Omarius Hines on a reverse for a 6-yard touchdown.
Pease has been able to find things offensively all season coming out of the half that have worked for the Gators. He was a key hire for Muschamp this offseason, as was strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman.
There’s no comparison to how much more physical the Gators are now, both offensively and defensively, than they were a year ago.
“We were probably sleep-talking it,” Florida center Jonotthan Harrison joked of the constant push by the coaches to be more physical. “We heard it day in and day out, in the weight room, in the locker room, in the training room.
“Wherever we were, we heard that, and it’s showing right now.”
Moreover, Driskel said Muschamp’s intensity has been infectious.
“Our guys really respond well to him,” Driskel said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s going to be there during practice, and he’s going to be there during games. He’s not going to change.”
Muschamp might not say it publicly. But down deep, he loves the way this Florida team is winning games with its blue-collar, physical approach that’s long on resourcefulness and lean on style.
After all, the SEC has never been a fashion show.
“Our style of play will continue to evolve as we’re here,” Muschamp said. “That’s who we are at this point and will be who we are in three weeks. Next season, I think we’ll continue to evolve. We want to be more balanced and continue to stretch the field vertically and create more opportunities down the field.
“In our league, though, look at the last two [defensive] fronts we’ve played, LSU and South Carolina. Those are first-round draft picks. They’re not good players. They’re really, really good players, and come April, they’ll be building houses for their parents.”
No doubt. And come next Saturday, the Gators will be playing for a chance to return to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2009.
“We’ll take this as if it’s our last game, our national championship game,” Harrison said. “That’s what’s driving us.”
So far, it’s been one heck of a drive.