Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp ensured the fans all offseason that their team was headed in the right direction. He spoke at Gator Clubs, appeared on national television, did radio interviews and repeated himself over and over again, promising that Florida was tougher and deeper than one year ago.
Muschamp’s emphatic Gator Chomps following his team’s 14-6 victory over the LSU Tigers on Saturday were his way of releasing the pent up frustration that was visible on his face but not communicated in 2011. The Gators were simply not good enough to win football games one year ago.
“We weren’t physical enough on the line of scrimmage to compete and play in this league. Our depth was part of that issue because of the way we practiced,” he said on Wednesday. “Some of the things I wanted to do, and I felt like we needed to do, we couldn’t do because of numbers and attrition. We didn’t practice the way we always wanted to practice. And then as we went through the season, my realization of where we were sort of came to a head. We weren’t physical enough on either side of the line of scrimmage.”
That does not sound like the Florida team of today, one which boasts one of the best defenses in the nation and an offense that has succeeded by running the ball down opponents’ throats while out-toughing them for four quarters.
“You saw two very physical teams going at it [Saturday] on both lines of scrimmage. Obviously it’s easy to see our improvements that we’ve made,” Muschamp said after the game. “I can’t speak any further without talking about Jeff Dillman, our strength coach. It was very evident out there on the football field tonight. We had a very strong, physical football team that had good endurance against an outstanding, athletic bunch, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Credit [him] and his staff; those guys do an outstanding job.”
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Dillman joined the Gators in the offseason and instated an Olympic-style powerlifting program that has Florida stronger and playing with more energy than it did a year ago. Senior running back Mike Gillislee said he got stronger throughout the game, noting that the strength and conditioning staff has taught the players to continue fighting and never give up. He also said he felt 10 times better conditioned than a year ago.
Depth, strength, toughness are just a few pillars of Muschamp’s plan. Though he stopped short of telling fans not to expect much from Florida in 2011, saying he knows the Gators are always expected to win big games against quality opponents, he did preach patience with the consideration that the program was being overhauled.
Asked Saturday if he feels like soured fans may now be turning into believers considering the way the team has played so far this season, Muschamp explained that what is most important is that the team is successful and supported.
“I’m not really worried about me. I got a bunch of friends out there,” he said with a wry grin. “I think it’s important for our fans that we need to come in The Swamp and play well. And we need to win at our place. And our fans deserve that. And they haven’t really gotten any exciting wins maybe really so-to-speak based on their perception of who is good. So, I’m very happy for our fans.
“It was alive in there tonight. There was no question. Our fans made a difference in that football game, and they energized our football team. We got the greatest fans in the world, and I mean that. That place was alive. I’ve been in a lot of arenas – college, pro, I’ve played in them, coached in them – that [Saturday] was as fine as any I’ve ever been in. A credit to our fans for supporting and hanging in there and being patient. They deserve to have that win. Our kids do as well. I don’t really care about me.”
Florida won Saturday by running the football, playing solid defense and winning the field position battle on special teams – exactly the way Muschamp envisioned the Gators taking down quality Southeastern Conference opponents.
It is for that reason that Muschamp is much more confident in the state of the program than he was one year ago when Florida looked completely outmatched in three games against SEC West opponents.
“I think we’ve improved. I think we’ve taken some steps forward. I’m not going to sit here and doubt that. There’s so many more things to accomplish as we move forward in the season. Again, when you continue to climb the mountain, the steps get a little more treacherous,” he said.
“We’ve got to understand that. We’ve got to understand we have a lot of things we need to clean up within our football team. There’s so many things we can work on that are on the top of my mind as far as when we start Monday with our players. It was a great win, so I’m not trying to take anything away from the win, but it counts as one and we have a long season ahead of us.”
The Gators have now succeeded in their first tough October test but things will not get any easier for them over the next three weeks. Florida travels to Vanderbilt next Saturday before hosting South Carolina in two weeks and concluding the month with its annual game against Georgia in Jacksonville, FL.
UF’s win Saturday made an impression nationally but inside the locker room it will wind up being one mark on a long checklist. There is one particularly redeeming factor that Muschamp believes the Gators will be able to take away from Saturday’s performance.
“It just adds more confidence to what you’re doing. It adds more belief in our system and what we’re trying to do. Top-down in the organization, it has a strong believe in what we’re doing,” he said.
That belief has obviously been extended to those outside the Florida football program.
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press