Final Record: 11-1 overall, 7-1 SEC
One could write a novel on the miraculous turnaround the 7-6 ‘11 Gators had to the 11-1 ‘12 Gators. There were several reasons for that turnaround, but it all comes back to head coach Will Muschamp. Not many in Gator country even felt remotely positive going into this season, much less thought Florida could get back to elite levels.
Muschamp got rid of about 600 pounds of dead weight combined in Charlie Weis and John Brantley. He also made two significant hires in offensive coordinator Brent Pease and strength coach Jeff Dillman. Both, along with Muschamp, have had tremendous impacts on this team in year two.
Muschamp, along with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, guided the Gators’ defense to new heights. Some would make a case this was the best defense in the country, only lacking an elite pass rusher. Defensive linemen Shariff Floyd, Dominique Easley and others developed and flourished in the system. Linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins were good, but freshman three-star recruit Antonio Morrison arguably made the play of the year with his hit and forced fumble against FSU. All five of those players were great, but safety Matt Elam was better. The Gators’ defense finished 6th in total defense and 3rd in scoring defense in the country. This group forced 29 turnovers, after only forcing only 14 all of last season.
Offensively, Florida was frustrating to watch at times. They always seemed to play to the level of their opponent – see LSU, FSU, Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Sophomore starter Jeff Driskel was consistently collective and efficient, but he showed his youth as well, taking sacks rather than throwing the ball away. The offensive line was just brutal at times, but when they were healthy they could wear down a defensive line. Wide receivers were non-existent, and tight end Jordan Reed became the biggest playmaker. However, none were more important than first-year starter and senior Mike Gillislee. He lifted the Gators to the third best rushing offense in the SEC.
Florida won with defense, turnover margin and special teams. Punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis were more valuable than anone on offense except Mike Gillislee. Emerging star and special teams extraordinaire Loucheiz Purifoy became the biggest weapon on the team not named Gillislee, Elam or Floyd.
The Gators ended the 2012 regular season with the best resume in college football, having beaten the #8, #9, #10 and #12 teams in the country. They lost the one game they couldn’t lose against Georgia, thanks in part to six turnovers.
Offensive Stud: Mike Gillislee, who became the first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004, carried Florida’s offense. Gillislee was the tough power back the Gators and Muschamp needed, posting five 100-yard performances. No more jitterbugs such as Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, but Gillislee became the consistent runner who could run between the tackles and take a screen pass to the house. He totaled 235 carries for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing third in the SEC in rushing yards. Because of his low mileage, Gillislee could be a serviceable back at the next level, too.
Defensive Stud: The three primary candidates for the defensive MVP are tackle Shariff Floyd, linebacker Jonathan Bostic and safety Matt Elam – but I’m going with Matt Elam. I think he’s the heart and soul of a talented defense and the best secondary in the country and will most likely head to the NFL after this season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 65, and he posted 10.0 tackles for loss. He also nabbed one sack and led the team with four interceptions. Muschamp loves run-stopping safeties, and he may have the best one in the country in Matt Elam.
Where To Next: Florida gears up to play Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, a bowl Georgia fans and several others don’t think Florida belongs in because they didn’t win their division. The Gators should finish with a top three recruiting class. Now, Muschamp and Florida will enter ‘13 with much higher expectations than they entered this season. We’ll see how the Gators handle the pressure of winning.
Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports