HOOVER, Ala. — They have not forgotten that deflating night in New Orleans six months ago.
They remember the turnovers and the penalties and the crummy feeling they had when they walked out of the Superdome.
They wish they could forget the final score: Louisville 33, Florida 23.
A sweet season for the Gators ended with an unexpected sour taste.
“We just didn’t have the pieces to the puzzle to that game,” senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley said Tuesday here at the SEC Football Media Days. “We’ve been living off that all [offseason], so we’ve got to change that. They have the score [posted] right before we walk in the locker room, so everyday we have to see it.”
As Gators coach Will Muschamp prepares for his third season, the Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville in January serves as constant source of motivation.
Florida entered the game with a chance to put a giant exclamation point on what would have been only the sixth 12-win season in school history and shout to the college football world, “Hey, the Gators are back.”
They would have finished ranked no lower than third in the country. They would have left the Big Easy in a much better mood.
“We got away from our formula,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “I look back on it now, we needed to stick to our formula. That was the one regret I had coming out of that game.”
The formula Muschamp relies on starts with a bone-rattling defense, good special teams play, and a ball-control offense built around a tough, physical running game.
The Gators relied on that formula for eight come-from-behind wins a year ago, turning a 6-6 regular season in Muschamp’s first season to 11-1 before that Sugar Bowl loss.
While the Gators spent a portion of Tuesday revisiting the end of last season, they are more interested in looking ahead to this season.
Don’t mistake the chatter as doom and gloom.
Rather the opposite.
No one predicted Florida would win 11 games in 2012, at least not before it actually happened. Few envisioned the Gators would beat LSU and South Carolina to finish 7-1 in the SEC East.
They are out to prove that despite that lackluster performance against Louisville that, yes, they are back.
“It should be a good year,” fifth-year senior offensive lineman Jon Halapio said. “I feel like we have the leadership to keep this thing rolling.”
The Gators lost seven starters on defense and four regulars on offense, and Mr. Automatic, kicker Caleb Sturgis, is now with the Miami Dolphins.
Still, hope is high for a program that won two national titles in four seasons prior to a dip in Urban Meyer’s final season in 2010.
Florida was a combined 15-11 in Meyer’s final season and Muschamp’s first.
The climb back toward the nation’s elite received a speed pass last season when Florida turned a minus-12 turnover ration in 2011 to a plus-15 in Year 2 under Muschamp.
Better players and better chemistry does that.
“I think as far as our win total last year, probably ahead of the game a little bit,” Muschamp said. “As far as where our roster is and our locker room, I’m very comfortable with where we are.
“This is where I wanted to be at this time from the standpoint of we’re building this the right way. And that starts up front on both lines of scrimmage. In our league you better be good there.”
Halapio is one of nine offensive linemen on the roster with significant experience, and Easley is part of a group of defensive linemen that includes rising sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard.
The presence of Fowler and Bullard makes the loss of first-round NFL Draft pick Sharrif Floyd not as alarming.
Offensively, quarterback Jeff Driskel will be asked to make more plays in the passing game, as will a receiving corps that features five true freshmen. If some of the newcomers can contribute, and sophomore running back Matt Jones makes the impact the Gators expect, Florida should be in the hunt for its first SEC East title since 2009.
“I feel like we’re close,” Halapio said.
“I’m hearing Florida, South Carolina and Georgia,” Driskel said. “Those are going to be some big games. We know we are going to have to be at our best to win those games.”
Driskel’s emergence as the full-time starter last season is a big reason Muschamp is more optimistic his third season at the helm can be the best so far.
The junior from Oviedo is a dual-threat weapon with a strong arm and a better grasp of second-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease’s offense.
“I feel much more comfortable,” Muschamp said. “I know who are quarterback is today as opposed to last season.”
Driskel has taken on more of a leadership role and team unity is at an all-time high since Muschamp arrived according to Easley.
“He’s made this program into a family, so when you come in you’re accepted as a family member, so there’s no doubts or worries in your mind or heart,” Easley said.
Besides rebuilding chemistry, Muschamp has revamped the way the Gators play.
While Meyer and former coach Steve Spurrier were known for their offensive backgrounds, Muschamp is a defensive wizard.
He’s a throwback to another era in some ways. To win in today’s SEC, Muschamp believes you have to play great defense, feature excellent special teams, and be able to run the ball when the game is on the line.
The formula was good for 11 wins last year.
The Gators plan to tweak the formula in 2013 but not toss it to the side as they did against Louisville.
“I’m excited moving forward with our style,” Muschamp said. “Everybody has their own preference with how they want to move the football. I’d love to have some 40-point wins, but at the end of the day I’m concerned about one stat and that’s winning.”