Do Florida fans even remember how bad the Gators have been for the previous two years? They were terrible. The combined record of 15-11 with two bowl wins sounds slightly average until you look at it a little closer.
2010 was the year of Zombie Urban Meyer. Urban retired after the 2009 SEC Championship loss for “health reasons” but it might have been more accurately described as “mental health reasons” only to come back for a cameo appearance at the Sugar Bowl. After that game he took a leave of absence for all of the winter recruiting and spring practices and came back in the fall roughly 30 lbs. heaver and 30% of his former coaching self.
Year 1 PT (Post Tebow), the Gators went 8-5, (4-4 SEC). They were 0-4 against ranked opponents getting outscored 131-56. The regular season ended with a 31-7 loss to rival Florida State. The Gators won their bowl game over a Penn State against an 85-year old Joe Paterno who would be fired 11 months later and dead two months after that. Here is a play-by-play I did of that game that gives you a good feeling for just how pathetic both of those teams were at the time. Oh, yeah, and Urban Meyer quit, again.
In 2011, the first year under Will Muschamp, the Gators went 7-6 (3-5 SEC). They played five ranked opponents, and again, lost every single time. In those games they were outscored 137-59. That doesn’t include the 21-7 home loss to rival Florida State, who was unranked at the time. They needed a win over FCS school Furman to even get Bowl eligible. Sure, they won the bowl game but that had more to do with the Post-Jim Tressel Ohio State managing to slightly out-dumpster-fire Florida.
Nobody came into 2012 feeling like the Gators were on the verge of getting back to the level of the college football elites. There was a good chance that the defense, which started showing signs of life late in 2011, would be improved. Quarterback John Brantley graduated so that was a plus, as was a disinterested offensive coordinator Charlie Weis leaving to coach at Kansas. But, the Gators had no offensive identity coming into the season and no proven offensive playmakers making it hard to believe that the Gators would score enough points to avoid having fewer than three losses with their typically tough SEC + Florida State schedule. And quite honestly, head coach Will Muschamp didn’t give fans much to believe in during his first season. This season started with a lot more questions than answers.
Well, Muschamp is a defensive guy and the defense was improved. In fact, they were elite. In fact, they were the best defense in the county. DT Sharrif Floyd, DL Dominique Easley, and Safety Matt Elam led a defense that only gave up 12.9 points a game. The same team that faded late in games in 2011 got stronger as games went on.
The offense, as expected, was without a consistent identity and lacked proven playmakers throughout the season, but the staff and players were realistic about that fact and molded a system designed to control the time of possession and reduce turnovers. There were many drives where the offensive agenda seemed to be to get to get enough yards so that the punter can try to pin the opponent inside their own 10, which he often did.
The time the offense actually tried to do too much was against Georgia, and the six turnovers cost them the game, and ultimately, a shot at the SEC Championship and National Championship. That’s the drawback to this style; there is very little room for error. Three turnovers they can handle, but six? Not so much. But, lessons learned.
Special teams picked up the slack for a pedestrian offense. Punter Kyle Christy became this season’s Brad Wing, a punter who changes games. Kicker Caleb Sturgis was praised by teammates as being one the team’s best offensive weapons. Muschamp called him “The best kicker in the country.” The Head Coach also raved about special team’s utility man Loucheiz Purifoy after he saved the Gators from a humiliating loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.
It’s a team where the guy who downs punts is more valuable than most receivers. Seriously. It’s not normal. But it’s all part of the plan.
It’s the kind of game plan that wins games. Florida is used to winning games; they’ve won quite a lot of them since Steve Spurrier was hired in 1990. However, the Fun N’Gun Spurrier teams and the Tim Tebow/Percy Harvin led Urban Meyer teams usually won pretty. Will Muschamp’s Gators won ugly. Real ugly.
If we use the scale which guys use to describe women, Spurrier’s wins were typically 9’s. Florida 9’s, at that. Meyer’s wins were typically Florida 8’s.
Muschamp’s wins were typically Pittsburgh 3’s. Burly, stocky pigs of wins.
They needed 10 in the fourth quarter to hold off Bowling Green in the season opener. The three week stretch of Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Jacksonville State was unwatchable and had critics wondering not only if the Gators were for real but if the SEC was actually a house of cards built on a foundation of lies and propaganda.
But, when you focus on the negatives, you tend to ignore the positives. Florida held Texas A&M and their soon to be Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Football scoreless in the second half in College Station. The win at Tennessee was a little more impressive at the time mainly because Tennessee was actually ranked and hadn’t yet lost the will to live (which they would do after the Georgia loss). The Gators out LSU’d LSU 14-6 in the Swamp. They quadrupled up South Carolina 44-11 in maybe the greatest defensive/special teams game by any team in 2012.
But it wasn’t until the Gators walked into Tallahassee and pounded Florida State did everyone finally begin to acknowledge what the Gators just accomplished. In the minds of the many college football voices like Gregg Doyel at CBS, it took beating an unchallenged team from a far inferior conference to validate their in-conference wins against better opponents with better quality wins. I know, it’s insane.
The SEC and in-state rivals are going to have to adjust to the newer, nastier Florida Gators. Florida fans are going to have to adjust to the newer, nastier Florida Gators. Try not to get so frustrated when they go ultra-conservative on offense despite only being up six points. Learn to love Loucheiz Purifoy downing a punt on the 3-yard line like you once loved Danny Wuerffel connecting with Ike Hilliard on a fade route or a Tim Tebow jump-pass.
It will feel different but the end results will be familiar to you. Embrace the Ugly; Love the Winning.
Photo Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE