GAINESVILLE -- When Will Muschamp was hired as Florida’s coach, he laid out his vision for the team plainly and clearly in his inaugural press conference.
“As a football team, I want to be known as a blue-collar, overachieving unit,” he said in December of 2010. “We will be a physically tough football team. And it’s not something you talk about; it’s something you live your life with.”
After Muschamp’s inaugural 7-6 season, which included several demoralizing defeats, it was tough to visualize that template coming to fruition any time soon. But after Saturday’s 14-6 upset of then-No. 4 LSU, a statement victory in which UF completely controlled the line of scrimmage, it’s become clear that these Gators have quickly bought in and now embody the mentality of their head coach — physically and mentally tough, especially when it counts.
In the fourth quarter of Southeastern Conference games in Muschamp’s first season, Florida was outscored 72-22. That number was “pounded” and “beat” into the heads of the players in the offseason.
Through four conference games this year, that number has flipped completely to 31-0 in the Gators’ favor, as Muschamp’s team has come from behind to win in three SEC games, including two coming in hostile road environments.
“As competitors you respond to those things and we have a competitive bunch,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got some guys that don’t like to hear that and they’ve taken it personally. When you take something personal sometimes you get pretty good results. So far we have.”
On Saturday against the Tigers, the Gators rushed 25 consecutive times to finish the game, holding the ball for more than 20 minutes in the second half and preventing LSU from scoring. Afterwards, players talked of crushing their opponent’s will again and again with the run game.
“Last year, they hit us in the mouth and put us in the ground,” safety Matt Elam said. “We had to come back and we had to put our foot down. We played physical; that was our plan. Coach talked about all week it’s going to be a physical game, it’s going to be 60 minutes, and we felt like we had to come out and hit them in the mouth, and we did.”
That’s exactly what Muschamp was talking about in a meeting room in the south end zone of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when he was introduced as UF’s coach. He delivered the same message in the same room on Saturday, and this time it held weight.
With the win against LSU, Muschamp proves he has at least put the wheels of change into motion, if not already pushed them through enough revolutions to arrive at the destination.
The Gators are now the No. 4 team in the nation and they have a legitimate shot at playing in games that mean something in December and January — something that hasn’t happened since Urban Meyer’s health problems came to light following the SEC Championship loss to Alabama in 2009.
But before Florida is truly crowned as being back on top of the college football hierarchy, Muschamp knows the team must navigate a difficult road.
“We’ve improved. I think we’ve taken some steps forward. I’m not going to sit there and doubt that,” he said. “But [there are] 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.”
The Gators have games remaining against No. 3 South Carolina, No. 12 Florida State and No. 14 Georgia, although that slate looks slightly easier than it did a week ago after the Bulldogs were blown out by the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C., and the Seminoles were exposed in a road loss to unranked North Carolina State.
But for the first time in years, there’s hope in Gainesville. A trip to Atlanta in just Muschamp’s second year is not out of the question.
That’s something most would have had trouble believing before the season, or back in December of 2010 when Muschamp was introduced as Florida’s next coach, even if he told everyone.
“I expect to win,” he said that Tuesday in December of 2010. “We’re not on a five-year plan here.”