GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators coach Will Muschamp walked off Florida Field briskly that night in late November.
His first Florida-Florida State game as the Gators’ head coach turned into one of the more puzzling games of his career.
The Gators limited FSU to 95 yards of total offense in the kind of defensive performance that rarely ends in a loss, much less a 14-point loss.
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But as good as the Gators’ defense was that night, their struggles on offense and inability to come up with game-changing plays on defense caused them any chance at a victory.
Shortly after walking off the field, Muschamp delivered his most memorable quote of his rookie season:
“Extremely disappointed with tonight and the season overall,’’ Muschamp said. “We’re a soft football team. We’re not a physically tough team, and we’re not a mentally tough team. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but soft is not one of them. And we are.”
In an instant, the tone for the offseason was set.
Nine months later and the Gators are preparing to unveil what Muschamp and the players call a tougher, stronger and better team than a year ago.
Florida hosts Bowling Green on Saturday in the season opener. While they helped ease the sting of the loss to FSU with a win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, the Gators want to put on a good show in their first game at The Swamp since that forgettable November night that prompted Muschamp to call out his team.
“We’re looking forward to getting back out in front of our fans,” Muschamp said Monday. “The last time we played in our stadium we didn’t coach or play very well and we’re looking forward to getting out and competing and playing well.”
The Gators want to continue to distance themselves from the disappointment of last year’s 7-6 record. A victory over the Falcons would be a good way to start with SEC games at Texas A&M and Tennessee the following two weeks.
Coming off a spring and summer spent in the weight room under the direction of first-year strength-and-conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman, the Gators opened fall camp earlier this month motivated by last season’s bumps and bruises.
“That’s definitely not what we came here for,” senior receiver Frankie Hammond said Monday. “We want to get back on top. We came here to win. That’s the bottom line. That’s the standard.”
The Gators entered Muschamp’s first season saying similar things coming off an 8-5 season in Urban Meyer’s final year.
However, a thin roster and a serious ankle injury to fifth-year senior quarterback John Brantley midseason derailed the Gators during a winless October than included lopsided losses to Alabama and LSU, who later met for the national championship.
They hope more depth and more experience — and a more physical approach — will help write a different story in 2012.
“You’ll always remember it,” Burton said. “Even when I’m 40, I’ll still remember my sophomore year. You always got to keep that in the back of your mind and just strive for it not to happen again.”
Muschamp is confident the Gators are more prepared to succeed than they were a year ago when they opened 4-0 before the wheels came off in October.
“I feel much better than a year ago about where we are,” Muschamp said. “We’re a tougher, more physical football team.”
Now it’s time to go out and prove it. Prove that they are not soft like Muschamp said they were after their last game in The Swamp.
There is no better way to prove that than with a win over the Falcons to start the season.
“It’s very important,” Hammond said. “We want to go out and get things going.”