Gators celebrate something positive

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They pounded shoulders and slapped backs. There were hugs and whoops and handshakes.

There were shouts and spurts of laughter. Hats, gloves and sweat bands were tossed into the stands.

It was a boisterous celebration for Florida's players as they filed off the field and into the locker room at EverBank Field after a 24-17 victory over Ohio State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl on Monday afternoon. The Gators haven't felt that way after a game -- even victories -- in a long time.

"I'm not sure," defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell said when asked if he could remember the last time they did. "Been a while."

Probably after the rout of Kentucky on Sept. 24. But UF's players enjoyed themselves Monday, reveling in a victory over a team that will be led by their former head coach. They celebrated the end of a forgettable season and the gaining of some positive momentum heading into recruiting and offseason workouts.

"It was an important game for us," linebacker Jon Bostic said. "We didn't want to end the season with a loss. Obviously this game can't change our season but it really got us started for next season."

Florida (7-6) is faced with several serious issues on offense heading into coach Will Muschamp's second season.

The offensive line struggled in 2011 and needs to get bigger and stronger, as well as add some much-needed quality depth. Are either Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett capable of becoming a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference? Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey are gone, so who will emerge as the team's starting tailback? It could be a freshman. Someone has to emerge out of a group of unimpressive wide receivers or there could be a couple of freshmen starting there in 2012, too.

Defensively, the Gators look pretty solid next season, with 20 of the 22 players on the two-deep depth chart returning from a unit that finished ninth in the nation in total defense. UF needs a big-time pass rushing end and more depth along the defensive line, but the secondary is stocked with talent.

Florida has already signed a pair of junior college defensive tackles (Damien Jacobs and Visesio Salt) and has 16 verbal commitments, including five-star offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, whom ESPNU ranks the No. 1 tackle in the country.

Even though his players are feeling good about themselves after beating Ohio State and there's a natural optimism that hits every program this time of year, Muschamp dropped in a dose of realism. He wants his players to remember the winless October, the harder-than-they-should-have-been victories over Furman and Vanderbilt, and the home loss to rival Florida State. Those are things that will, hopefully, shape 2012, Muschamp said.

"I told them in the locker room I don't want anybody to forget this season," he said. "I don't want anybody to forget this frustration, [the] tough times, the guys that weren't committed to our program [and] wanting to do it the right way, to do it our way.

"It's just one day, so let's don't get ahead of ourselves. It takes times to build it the way you want to get it. Patience is not a good word around here, but sometimes you've got to exercise that."

Muschamp spent the 2011 season trying to fix attitude and entitlement issues as well as begin the transition from the spread-option offense to a pro-style attack. It didn't go as smoothly as he had hoped, and the result was a second consecutive season that was not up to the standards the program has had since Steve Spurrier's arrival in 1990.

Despite that, even Muschamp wasn't immune to the good feelings in the locker room. He's just as optimistic about 2012 as his players are.

"The last two years [at] the University of Florida, we're 15-11. That's unacceptable," Muschamp said. "It's not where we're going to be very long. I can assure you of that. [UF is] moving in the right direction.

"We're building a program, not a team. It takes time."

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.