GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Two days after Florida’s win over No. 4-ranked LSU vaulted the Gators up the polls, people are talking about Will Muschamp’s team in a different light.
Suddenly, there is talk of Florida’s return to prominence and the Gators’ prospects to win the SEC East.
They even want to know about running back Mike Gillislee’s Heisman chances.
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“We’re in the fifth game of the year,’’ Muschamp responded at his Monday press conference. “Next question.”
Gillislee does lead the SEC in rushing (548 yards, 109.6 yards per game) and Florida’s offensive line manhandled LSU’s physical defensive front on Saturday in the second half, but Muschamp is trying to keep it real. Sure, the Gators are coming off their biggest regular-season win since 2009, but they play at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
They then come home to face No. 3-ranked South Carolina. After that, No. 14-ranked Georgia awaits. And then November rolls around.
How the No. 4-ranked Gators handle their newfound success will determine where they stand in a few weeks.
“We’re in a position to open a lot of eyes and show we’re on the rise,’’ safety Josh Evans said.
For now, Muschamp’s mission is to keep the Gators grounded — and grinding — like they have been.
He doesn’t expect a departure from that path primarily because of two words: experience and maturity.
“Those two words resonate with me throughout our season so far,’’ Muschamp said. “This has been a group that is a year older and a year more mature. A team that seems to understand that maybe we don’t have all the answers, that we need to work and we need to go back at it and work hard at it, and we have a coaching staff that understands that.
“I think that permeates throughout the entire program on what we need to do to continue to improve.’’
The Gators’ next test comes Saturday night in Nashville at Vanderbilt, which defeated SEC newcomer Missouri over the weekend. Second-year coach James Franklin led the Commodores to a bowl game a year ago, and Vanderbilt gave Florida all it wanted at The Swamp in a 26-21 Gators victory last November.
While Florida’s players and coaches basked in front of a loud and appreciative home crowd immediately following Saturday’s 14-6 win over LSU, a back-to-business approach permeated through the football offices and locker room on Monday.
Sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel pointed out that the Gators are just beginning to move toward their ultimate goals.
“We’re not done yet,’’ he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”
While Driskel already has wins over Texas A&M, Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU as Florida’s first-year starter, he was not at his best in Saturday’s win. Driskel finished 8 of 12 for only 61 yards, and he was sacked five times. Driskel and Muschamp both said Monday that the Gators will have to be more diverse offensively than they were against LSU.
Still, Muschamp didn’t blame Driskel for the lack of a passing attack.
“I thought he did his job,’’ Muschamp said. “We won the game. He did what called for us to win the game, and that was get us in the right runs late in the game and to execute in a critical third-down scramble, to continue to move the chains down the field. He did what he had to do to win the football game.”
Driskel has the same confidence in his teammates as Muschamp has in him. When asked how he thought the Gators would handle success after so much adversity the past couple of seasons, Driskel said:
“I think we’ll be fine. Like we’ve been saying all along, we have a more mature team this year. We’re not going to be satisfied. We know that there are definitely corrections to be made and improvements to be made. We’re going to handle this week like any other week.”
Gators receiver Frankie Hammond is one of the team’s senior leaders. He was here when the Gators won their last national title in 2008 and when they went undefeated during the 2009 regular season. He was also around as the Gators went 15-11 over the past two seasons, including a four-game losing streak last October.
As he watched his teammates celebrate Saturday’s win, Hammond liked what he saw. He wants to see more celebrations like that before his career concludes. That is part of this team’s drive, he said.
“We have worked so hard,’’ Hammond said. “We have put in so much work from January up to this point. We have worked our butts off to this point, and it’s paying off.”
Offensive lineman Jon Halapio helped open all those holes on Saturday for Gillislee to run through for 146 yards. Like Hammond, Halapio traces Florida’s six consecutive wins — dating back to the Gator Bowl win over Ohio State in January — directly to what transpired in the offseason.
Now is not the time to let up.
“This is what we’ve been preparing for, games like this week in and week out,’’ Halapio said.
The Gators have certainly made enormous strides since those four consecutive losses last October. Saturday’s win over LSU matches Florida’s number of October wins in the last two seasons combined (1-7 record, their only win in 2010 against Georgia).
How the Gators handle success is up next on the menu.
“We’ll see Saturday night,’’ Muschamp said. “To this point, very well as far as understanding and approaching each game the same.”