Gators insist they're better than 2011

Just like last year, Florida is 4-0 with a tough October slate looming

Updated: September 22, 2012, 8:41 PM ET
By Michael DiRocco | GatorNation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has been here before.

Undefeated, ranked pretty high, and a monster home game against one of the SEC's better teams looming.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
Kim Klement/US PresswireJeff Driskel, who adds a running threat at quarterback, is one of the reasons Florida coaches and players say they have an improved team.
But unlike last season, when the Gators were in the same position after four games, this season's 4-0 start is a lot different. That's what Florida's players and coaches are saying, anyway.

"We are a better team," UF coach Will Muschamp said after the 14th-ranked Gators' 38-0 victory over visiting Kentucky on Saturday. "We are a more physical team on both lines of scrimmage. I think we're deeper and more mature, and I think we handle things a lot better.

"I think we are a more talented team than we were a year ago in some critical spots, but we have to continue to press forward because we are not where we want to be."

Florida's four victories in 2012 are more impressive than last season's start. The Gators (4-0, 3-0 SEC) won at Texas A&M in what was the Aggies' first SEC game since joining the league and at Tennessee. And they did it by coming from behind after trailing at halftime in both games -- snapping an 0-5 streak under Muschamp when trailing at the break.

They did it with a sophomore quarterback making his first and second career starts. Jeff Driskel not only handled those hostile environments, he was nearly flawless: He didn't commit a single turnover and was able to make the correct run checks and audibles.

Running back Mike Gillislee is well on his way to coming close to his goal of 1,500 yards rushing this season. He has 402 yards and five touchdowns through the first four games. The receivers -- notably Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond and tight end Jordan Reed -- have begun to emerge as reliable targets.

The offensive line, while not dominant, is stronger and more physical than it was last season.

The Gators' defense has also been stellar in the second half, limiting A&M, Tennessee and Kentucky to a combined 244 yards in the final 30 minutes. That includes giving up 120 to Tennessee.

Last October was rough. We don't really like to mention that around here.

-- Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel

So there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Gators -- who have a bye this week with the LSU game up next on Oct. 6 -- are significantly better than they were at this point a year ago.

"Any time you're 4-0 to me, it's great," defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "It's a great feeling. But I think people say that because they feel like this team is more mature and more together. We pulled these wins out together as a team and I think every guy is buying into the team concept and it's really working for us.

"Any time you can go on the road, especially being in the SEC, and pull out two road wins, it's definitely big. We've got a lot of young guys, and being able to take them on the road and a new environment like that and come out successful, it's big. It brings a team together."

Florida's 4-0 start in 2011 raised everyone's hope that the Gators were ready to compete with the SEC's elite teams after struggling in Urban Meyer's final season. The good feelings lasted less than 30 minutes.

Alabama came into Florida Field and dominated the Gators. The Crimson Tide knocked UF quarterback John Brantley out late in the first half, and Driskel was overmatched and overwhelmed in the second half. Alabama won 38-10 to start what turned out to be a miserable October.

Without Brantley, Florida lost to LSU and Auburn with Driskel and another true freshman, Jacoby Brissett, taking snaps. Brantley returned for the Georgia game but wasn't 100 percent, and the Gators couldn't hold a lead in the final four minutes.

Florida scored just 11 second-half points -- none in the fourth quarter -- and was out-rushed 804-175 in the four October losses last year.

"Last October was rough," Driskel said. "We don't really like to mention that around here. It was definitely a tough time, but we're really confident going in this year and we feel like we can really close out. Last year we got outscored by these guys tremendously in the second half and in the fourth quarter, and we've shown this year we're really a second-half team and can really finish in the fourth quarter."

By the time October ended, UF was 4-4 and 2-4 in the SEC and done in the Eastern Division. The Gators struggled to beat Vanderbilt and Furman, were embarrassed by rival Florida State in Gainesville and only avoided the program's first losing season since 1979 by beating Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.

The Gators believe they won't be facing a similar fate this season.

"We're not done yet," Driskel said. "We're going to keep working hard and keep playing hard."

Mike DiRocco | email

ESPN Jacksonville Jaguars reporter