GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Will Muschamp believes he has a surefire way of keeping his team from overlooking Bowling Green in Saturday’s season opener.
“I’ll turn the tape on from last year and let our team watch that,” Muschamp said. “You watch the Furman game?”
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The 23rd-ranked Gators haven’t forgotten the near-debacle against the lower-division Paladins. Or that embarrassing loss to rival Florida State the following week.
Those are Florida’s last two home games — forgettable performances for sure. No doubt, then, that the Gators want to provide a better showing Saturday in The Swamp.
“We know that what we put out last year isn’t University of Florida, and this season we have to change that,” center Jon Harrison said. “That’s our goal: to change. We’ve been working hard all offseason to change this season around.”
Florida needed a victory in the Gator Bowl to avoid the team’s first losing season since 1979. It was an eye-opener for many, including Muschamp. He hired a new offensive coordinator and revamped the team’s weightlifting program in hopes of closing the gap on Southeastern Conference heavyweights Alabama and LSU.
If the changes work, Year 2 of the Muschamp era should go considerably smoother than 2011.
The Gators went 7-6 last season, which included four consecutive losses in October. They managed a combined 11 points in the second half against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia, and they didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter.
Needless to say, finishing was a big theme in the offseason and during fall practice.
“We’re thinking of this as a new year, trying to redeem ourselves,” right tackle Chas Green said.
It starts against the Falcons, a middle-of-the-pack team from the Mid-American Conference.
Bowling Green returns 17 starters, including 10 on defense, and seemingly heads south with some confidence.
“I think we have to talent and depth to give them a game and come out victorious,” center Chip Robinson said.
Surely, the Falcons watched Florida struggle much of last season. They also know things could be very different under new offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
Pease spent the last six years at Boise State, helping direct one of the most prolific offenses in the country. Can he do the same at Florida?
It could depend on what happens under center.
Sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel have battled for the starting job since spring practice — and the coaches insist they’re still neck and neck.
So Muschamp decided to play them both in the opener. One will start, the other will play the second quarter and the Gators will decide at halftime how to proceed from there. It’s certainly an unconventional situation, one Pease doesn’t anticipate will carry into the SEC opener at Texas A&M next week.
That means the first half could be the final audition for Brissett and Driskel, one last, pressure-filled chance in front of nearly 90,000 people to state their case for starting.
“This is our biggest opportunity and our biggest chance,” Driskel said.
Bowling Green feels the same way about playing at Florida Field. Sure, the Gators haven’t been all that impressive the last two years; they ranked 105th in total offense in 2011. But the program still maintains national recognition, the result of winning two championships in the last six seasons.
“These are opportunities to make a national name for yourself,” said Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson, whose program also plays at Virginia Tech in three weeks. “We get two of those opportunities this year. This is the first of those two. This is part of the reason we play those games: to put ourselves on a national stage and give ourselves an opportunity to do something special.”
Furman almost pulled it off last November, leading 22-7 in the first quarter and scaring Florida much of the afternoon. The Gators returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the final 13 minutes to seal the victory.
Players believe things will be different this season, and the opener is the best time to get things headed in the right direction.
“It’s very important,” receiver Frankie Hammond said. “It’s the first game of the year. We want to go out and get things going. We’ve been in camp going against each other for Lord knows how long. We want to go against an opponent and see, finally, all the hard work we put in pay off and finally get things going into the season.”