GAINESVILLE -- One year after Florida State needed just 95 yards of total offense to win convincingly in The Swamp for the first time since 2003, the words of Florida coach Will Muschamp still resonate.
“We’re a soft football team. That’s the bottom line,” he said after the Seminoles handily dispatched the Gators 21-7 in November last season. “That’s the facts. Hard to say it. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but soft is not one of them. And we are.”
Florida struggled across the board in Muschamp’s first season. Penalties and turnovers came in the worst of times. The Gators faded in the fourth quarter of games. And the offensive line was a sieve, allowing blockers into the backfield with such regularity that Muschamp afterward facetiously asked a reporter if he wanted to join the ranks.
A single play in the second quarter epitomized the year-long struggle: Trailing by 14 off two turnovers that FSU converted into points and facing a fourth-and-inches situation, Muschamp turned to Wildcat quarterback Trey Burton to pick up a much-needed first down and turn the tide back in UF’s favor.
Instead, like the Gators seemed to do all season, Burton went backward.
“When you’re [facing] fourth-and-1 and try to run a quarterback sneak and you lose 13 yards, that’ll trigger it,” Muschamp said Monday when asked why he felt the need to call the team soft. “It was a culmination of things that got built up — a little frustration, and you say what’s on your mind.”
‘Night and day’
Now, with No. 6 Florida (10-1) and No. 10 Florida State (10-1) set to meet again Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in what is sure to be another physical test, Muschamp said he has seen a significant change in the Gators’ toughness since last year’s loss.
“Night and day,” he said. “Top to bottom.”
Center Jonotthan Harrison and defensive tackle Omar Hunter agreed, saying the way Florida lost to bitter rival Florida State last season and Muschamp’s comments served as tremendous wake-up call.
“The fact that we lost the game last year made us realize that we do need to work harder and play with some heart,” Harrison said. “We need to get Florida back to what Florida is known to be and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Said Hunter: “Guys really took that comment hard. They wanted to improve and get better. … Hearing that from him, that did make us more focused and hungry to get better this offseason.”
The most noticeable difference from last year for Florida is the presence of an effective downhill rushing attack. Against ranked teams in 2011, the Gators averaged just 61 yards per game. During a four-game losing streak in October, they picked up 1.55 yards per carry and 43.75 a game.
This season, however, Florida has nearly doubled that number to 120.5 yards per game against ranked opponents.
“We’re very different. We’re differently equipped this season than we were last year,” Muschamp said. “We’re much better on the offensive line. … That’s the biggest issue we had a year ago.”
Whether that offensive line stands up against Florida State and its top-ranked rush defense remains to be seen. The Seminoles are punishing opponents in the run game, allowing an average of just 2.3 yards per carry. But they have faced just one ranked team in Clemson, and the Tigers rushed for 136 yards.
Much at stake
But as it is with rivalry games as intense as this one, the stats and analysis usually don’t mean much.
And Saturday’s game is shaping up to be the biggest in the series in recent history, as both teams are ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings and fighting for a berth in a top bowl. Sitting at No. 4 in the BCS, Florida needs a win and a Notre Dame loss to be in position for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami in January.
Experienced in the rivalry, Florida sixth-year senior offensive lineman James Wilson earlier this week summed up nicely what to expect in Tallahassee on Saturday.
“It’s going to be crazy,” he said. “They hate us. We don’t like them — at all.”