TALLAHASSEE -- In his second season after taking over a program that departing coach Urban Meyer described as “broken,” Florida’s Will Muschamp has provided reason after reason as to why that same program should be deemed fixed.
With a 37-26 victory over Florida State on Saturday, the Gators improved to 11-1 while playing the nation’s toughest schedule, beating four teams ranked in the top 13 of the current Bowl Championship Series standings.
They allowed just 12.9 points per game, the fewest since giving up 9.8 in 1964. They flipped a minus-12 turnover differential in 2011 to plus-17 in 2012, a statistic bettered this season by only three teams.
And, after the embarrassing loss to Florida State last season, Muschamp called his team soft. But it was anything but Saturday, ending a remarkable turnaround season with an impressive display of toughness and resolve in the fourth quarter.
Are they soft now?
“If you can find another team more physically tough than us, point at them,” defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. “Right now, that’s just how we play — we play physical. … We know how to throw punches when we’re down and we know how to throw them when we’re up.”
Still, Florida’s lone blemish on its record, a loss to Southeastern Conference East division rival Georgia in October, means Muschamp will not be leading his team to Atlanta this week for the SEC Championship Game and Florida will not get a chance to play for a national title, despite having arguably the best résumé of any team in the discussion.
That, Muschamp said, is the reason why Florida is not yet “fixed.”
“At the University of Florida, we’re about winning championships. We’re about going to Atlanta. We didn’t achieve that goal,” he said Saturday night, adding a bittersweet taste to the celebration of his first win over the Seminoles.
“Everybody wants to talk about how we’ve arrived and we’re back — hell, we haven’t won a championship. Until you win a championship, I have a hard time saying we’ve arrived and we’re back at all.”
Florida will have to watch Alabama and Georgia battle this weekend for the chance to play Notre Dame in the BCS Championship game.
That stings because Alabama lost at home to Texas A&M and Georgia lost by four touchdowns to South Carolina, while the Gators shut down Johnny Manziel and the Aggies in a come-from-behind win in Week 2 and throttled the Gamecocks by 33 points.
Meyer won two championships at Florida, so it’s understandable that Muschamp’s litmus test for success correlates directly to what Meyer was able to accomplish, even if he left the cupboard somewhat bare when he bolted for good following the 2010 season.
“It’s a work in progress,” Muschamp said of the resurrection process. “It’s a 365-day-a-year job. You’ve got to continue to chop the wood every single day. We have made tremendous progress.”
That progress is impossible to deny. After failing to sniff any sort of ranking this late in the season last year, the Gators checked in at No. 4 in the newest BCS standings released Sunday night.
And although they don’t have an opportunity to play in Atlanta or Miami, Florida has all but locked up a spot in the top four of the final standings, meaning they would be guaranteed a berth in a BCS bowl.
(The Gators are expected to be the Sugar Bowl’s at-large selection.)
So, even if Florida isn’t “fixed” in Muschamp’s mind because a championship is not attainable this year, several players said this season was far from a failure.
“We’re proud of our season,” defensive end Dominique Easley said. “We had one setback. But we’re together. We played our hearts out. And nobody can take that from us.”