Muschamp gets Florida moving

Originally Published: December 27, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Good thing Florida coach Will Muschamp doesn't need batteries.

He'd go through them like a 30-handicapper goes through golf balls on the No. 17 Island Green at TPC Sawgrass.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesFlorida's success this season has followed Will Muschamp's blueprint for the Gators.

Muschamp is always on, 24/7 and full blast.

It shouldn't come as any surprise, then, that his Florida football team was the biggest mover this season in the SEC. The Gators went from a team that didn't beat anybody and barely finished the season a year ago with a winning record to a team that carved out the best résumé in college football this season.

It wasn't always pretty, and at times it was difficult to watch on offense, but Florida bullied its way to four wins over teams that finished in the top 12 of the final BCS standings.

And the Gators did it the old-fashioned way in going from a 6-6 regular season in Muschamp's first year (7-6 overall) to 11-1 this season, marking the biggest one-year leap for the program in 32 years.

They played championship-caliber defense, committed to running the football, excelled in the kicking game and owned the fourth quarter.

It was the exact blueprint Muschamp laid out for his coaches and players upon taking over for Urban Meyer after the 2010 season, but the results were anything but immediate.

"There were too many games last year where we weren't the most physical team and too many games that we didn't finish," Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. "We weren't going to let that happen again."

There's no question that Muschamp inherited some talent, particularly in the defensive line, but he also inherited a program that was, even in Meyer's words, broken in a lot of areas.

It took Muschamp a year to get everybody on the same page and weed out those players who weren't interested in buying into his vision.

"Once we got everybody pointed in the right direction, it was on," Floyd said.

The offense was again limited this season, and the lack of playmakers on the perimeter was glaring. But winning 11 games didn't come by accident, and now the Gators can generate some of the best momentum in their program since Meyer's national championship run in 2006 and 2008 by taking down Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and setting the stage for what will be a highly anticipated 2013 season.

Don't think for a moment, though, that the Gators have arrived.

Muschamp made that clear soon after blowing past rival Florida State 37-26 in the regular-season finale.

"Until you've won a championship, I have a hard time saying that we've arrived and we're back," Muschamp said. "At the University of Florida, we're about winning championships."

Had it not been for a six-turnover debacle against Georgia, Florida would have been in Atlanta on Dec. 1 playing for an SEC championship and ultimately a shot to play for a national title.

So at the very least, the Gators are back in that conversation, and they did the things this season that it takes to win championships.

At the top of that list was keeping teams out of their end zone. Florida allowed an SEC-low 10 touchdowns in eight league games and gave up only two fourth-quarter touchdowns to SEC foes all season.

The Gators outscored SEC opponents by a 61-20 margin this season in the fourth quarter, which was in direct contrast to a year ago, when they were outscored 72-22.

[+] EnlargeMatt Jones
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesWith a passing offense that ranked near the bottom nationally last season, RB Matt Jones will be a key for Florida in 2013.

First-year strength coach Jeff Dillman played a significant role in Florida's fourth-quarter resurgence, and the Gators' ability to finish games was highlighted by their resounding win at Florida State.

The Gators scored 24 consecutive points to blow the game open, and the Seminoles' only score in the fourth quarter was a meaningless touchdown at the very end of the game.

The other obvious difference was that Florida went from 113th nationally in 2011 to tied for fifth nationally this season in turnover margin. The Gators forced 29 turnovers and lost just 12, with six of those coming in the Georgia loss.

In 2011, they forced just 14 turnovers and lost 26.

Muschamp was equally determined that Florida would be a better running team and capable of wearing teams down in the second half. The Gators were third in the SEC in rushing with an average of 194.1 yards per game, which was 51 more yards than they averaged per game last season on the ground.

Senior running back Mike Gillislee became the first Florida player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. Gillislee has 1,104 yards entering the bowl game.

Being more explosive in the passing game is the next step for the Gators offensively, and one of the most promising signs of the pre-Christmas bowl practices was the way the receivers performed. The only two wide receivers to catch touchdown passes this season were Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond.

"I think the receivers have improved the most over our bowl practices," Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel said. "They've run clean routes. They've made plays. They've made tough catches. So we've gotten a lot better, especially at the receiver position."

Chris Low | email

College Football