Florida’s dreamy season ends tonight in New Orleans when the fourth quarter clock expires, and the Gators are looking to end their massive turnaround with a knockout blow to the Big East’s Louisville.
From 7-6 to 11-1 – no one could have predicted how well the Gators fared in Will Muschamp’s second season in Gainesville. There are so many different directions, angles and reasons for the huge turnaround, but it all comes back to the Gators’ headman, as he laid out a plan of toughness combined with physicality on the onset of his hiring.
The Gators’ story of a sexy turnaround starts on the defensive side of the ball, namely the number of takeaways. Last season, the talented and inexperienced defense only created 14 total turnovers. They’ve more than doubled their production from ‘11 with 29 this season, tied for the lead in the SEC in turnover margin at +17. You could make a case that Florida is the best defense in the country as evidenced by their physicality, and how they have excelled at all three levels of the defense. The only missing piece to the puzzle is a big-time pass rusher.
Along with turnover margin from a defensive standpoint, two key hires that turned Florida around were offensive coordinator Brent Pease and strength coach Jeff Dillman. Pease is Muschamp’s guy, and after Charlie Weis left for Kansas, Pease was dubbed to bring in the power running game and transform one of the softest offenses in the SEC. Florida is third in the conference in rushing offense, averaging over 194 yards per game. Strength coaches never get any credit, but they are the most important coach on the staff other than the head coach. They are the only coach who has day-to-day contact with the players year-round, and it’s showed. Dillman transformed a soft, weak-minded team into a legit power team that saves their best for the fourth quarter.
And tonight, Florida gets to write a final chapter on such a memorable season, remembering they were six turnovers and one loss away from playing for it all in Miami.
Florida excels against Louisville’s strengths. The Cardinals offense is built around Teddy Bridgewater’s passing game with his talented receivers. Louisville’s pass offense is 23rd in the country and averaging nearly 300 yards per game. And they will have to be on their mark tonight against arguably the top pass defense in the country, with big physical corners and ball-hawking safeties. Florida is tied for 8th in the country in interceptions with 19, but Louisville and Bridgewater have done a great job taking care of the football, too.
The Cardinals are 52nd in rushing defense, and it’s no mystery that Florida will try and ram it down their throat with Mike Gillislee and a power offense. The passing game has been suspect all season, and it’s a combination of Jeff Driskel’s inexperience, a makeshift offensive line at times because of injuries and absolutely no impact players at wide receiver through 12 games. Tight end Jordan Reed has been one of the few go-to impact playmakers for Driskel and Pease in the passing game.
So, we all come back to defense and special teams, and Florida has excelled in special teams, too. Punter Kyle Christy leads the SEC, averaging 46.10 yards per punt, and kicker Caleb Sturgis leads the SEC with an 85.2 percentage. But the gunners on the punt team are the best unit in the country, and Florida’s gunners are more important than any receiver on the team. It’s Muschamp’s plan to win.
The Gators have likely added some wrinkles in the offensive scheme over the long layoff, and we’ll see just how much, if any, quarterback Driskel and company benefited with five weeks of extra practice.
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