KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- After three games, Florida is 3-0. In 2011 after three games, Florida was 3-0. But that’s where the similarities seem to end.
This year’s Gators, according to coach Will Muschamp, are better on offense, especially in the run game, better on defense thanks to a year in the system under Muschamp and Dan Quinn, and they’re tougher both mentally and physically.
“Night and day,” Muschamp said of the difference in toughness between 2011 and 2012. But the second-year coach who picked up his first victory over a ranked opponent on Saturday, beating then-No. 23 Tennessee 37-20 in Knoxville, said there is still plenty for the Gators to improve on and was careful not to praise his team too much despite a second consecutive road victory in the Southeastern Conference after trailing at halftime.
“I walked into the locker room at halftime and there’s not anyone pointing fingers and there’s not anybody complaining or asking what’s going on out there; last year, to be quite honest, we had some of that,” Muschamp said. “There was uncertainty of what we are doing. Instead of panicking, we’ve pulled together and had a lot of poise. Again, we haven’t arrived. We need to continue to press forward.”
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But so far, the writing is on the wall. These Gators have improved. Last year, Florida was beaten up in the fourth quarter of SEC games by a margin of 72-22. This year, UF has outscored Texas A&M and Tennessee 14-0 and the team holds a 37-6 margin after halftime.
Playing an entire game and not quitting in the fourth quarter was a huge emphasis in the offseason, and that statistics speak for themselves. In the first half of games this year, the Gators are averaging 11.3 points and 160 yards on offense while allowing 12.7 points and 207.7 yards. In the second half, Florida is scoring 24.7 points and racking up 350.3 yards of offense on average while allowing just 4.3 points and 126 yards.
And on the mental side, the Gators have shown a maturity they lacked in the six-loss campaign of 2011. After a failed fake punt set up Tennessee with great field position, Florida responded by forcing an intentional grounding penalty and a three-and-out. Senior linebacker Jon Bostic agreed that was a sign of mental toughness, but added “we’ve still got a long ways to go.”
“We see a lot of improvement,” he said. “But we’re never satisfied.”
After finishing 113th in turnover margin in 2011 at minus-0.92, Florida is plus-3 through three games this season and has only turned the ball over on offense one time.
And the offense, which finished 105th nationally last season, showed significant signs of improvement on Saturday, racking up more than 500 yards and scoring 37 points in a hostile road environment. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel looked poised and calm in the face of pressure and made the type of play that was so needed but missing at the position in 2011.
The team is getting better the more and more it plays, and while Muschamp took some criticism after a sloppy performance in the season opener against Bowling Green, Florida has constantly trended upward since.
“This is a different 3-0,” Muschamp said. “We’re a better team.”
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Now No. 14 nationally, the Gators play Kentucky at home this week, a team that lost to Western Kentucky 32-31 in overtime on Saturday, before a bye week and a home game against No. 2 LSU on Oct. 6. After that, games remain against the Nos.4, 5 and 7 teams in the AP Top 25. There are still things to clean up — penalties remain a problem, as does consistency on both sides of the ball — but Muschamp is confident, more so than any other time as UF’s coach.
“We’re the University of Florida,” Muschamp said. “These guys didn’t come here to go 7-6. These guys have responded the right way.”