Gators forgetting the past, looking to future

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They have talked about it publicly. They have discussed it privately during team meetings and in individual position groups. They have talked about it with their families, their girlfriends and their neighbors.

Really, there is nothing else to say.

The Gators are well aware that 7-6 seasons don’t go over too well in Gator Nation. That was Florida’s record in Will Muschamp’s first season in charge of a program two seasons removed from a 12-0 regular season. If not for a victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, the Gators would have finished with a losing record for the first time in 32 years.

The 2011 Gators had plenty of shortcomings, many inherited by Muschamp and others exposed due to an injury to quarterback John Brantley and the rough-and-tumble SEC schedule.

The good news is that the 2012 season is here and after months of preparation, the Gators finally take the field on Saturday in the season opener against Bowling Green. Florida seeks its 23rd consecutive season-opening win.

Yes, it really is time to stop talking and start playing.

“I think we’ve improved tremendously but I told our guys we’re not going to talk about it,” Muschamp said. “We need to line up and do it. Talk is cheap. We need to go line up and play. I can sit here and tell you how I feel. At the end of the day, we’ll be judged on Sept. 1 on how we perform.”

In college football, nothing bridges the gap between a disheartening loss and the promise of better days ahead than a victory. The Gators experienced that with their win over Ohio State in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day.

Coming off a 21-7 loss to Florida State in the regular-season finale at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the Gators brushed off the risk of their first losing record since 1979 with one of their best performances of the season. A replay against another opponent from Ohio would be a good way to kick off Muschamp’s second season on Saturday.

The Gators and Falcons have never met, but Muschamp and Co. have done their homework in studying a Bowling Green team that returns 20 starters from last year, including quarterback Matt Schilz.

“I’m very impressed with their quarterback, not just from his accuracy, but the way he can create,” Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said earlier this week. “He gets outside the pocket and can convert. He’s got good legs. He can run on third down to convert, but he can create also.

“If protection were to break down, he can get outside the pocket and still make completions. We’ve had time to watch him on tape and know this guy is a strong caliber quarterback.”

While the Falcons certainly present an obstacle on Saturday, the Gators talked about themselves most of the preseason. They want to start the season fast with SEC road games at Texas A&M and Tennessee following Bowling Green.

They also want to prove that last year was as far as the program can drop.

“We were definitely humbled,’’ linebacker Lerentee McCray said. “Everybody has to step up their level of play. We have made tremendous progress this offseason. I can trust each and every one of my teammates. We’re doing all the things that it takes to be great in this league.”

A more focused approach and better understanding of Muschamp’s expectations at practice, in the film room and on game day have created a more confident Florida team than we saw the second half of last season when a winless October sent the Gators spinning.

Senior running back Mike Gillislee said there is a more professional approach in Year 2 under Muschamp – and Year 1 for offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who replaced Charlie Weis.

“There’s been a lot of talk going on, but we feel like it’s time to go to work,” Gillislee said. “Many of us feel like it’s just time to get focused only on football.”

The Gators still don’t know whether Jeff Driskel or Jacoby Brissett will start at quarterback on Saturday, but they don’t seem concerned. Players and coaches have repeatedly said during fall camp that they can win with either sophomore taking the snaps.

Offensive lineman Chaz Green has talked enough about what happened last year. He is ready to make it happen this year.

“We’re just trying to get back to where we were and we know we can be playing Florida football,” Green said. “We realize there are things that we had to improve on and we worked on that in the spring. There wasn’t much that needed to be said. We knew what we had to do.

“Everybody knew that we didn’t have a good year. We need to work to get back to where we can be, where we should be.”