Tougher Gators shed ‘soft’ label

About a year ago Gators coach Will Muschamp stood in front of his team and gave them arguably the worst insult a football coach can give his players: He called them “soft.”

“Hard to say it,” Muschamp said following his team’s 21-7 loss to Florida State. “I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, and soft is not one of them, and we are. That’s my fault.”

A year later, Muschamp stands by his words and the meaning behind them. Asked why he felt it necessary to berate his team to the extent he did, Muschamp said it was a culmination of a number of things that built through the 2011 season.

“When you’re fourth-and-1 and try to run a quarterback sneak and you lose 13 yards, that’ll trigger,” said Muschamp, referencing a rush by Trey Burton that ended one of Florida’s few scoring chances against the Seminoles.

“A little frustration, and you say what’s on your mind. That’s what I do with my team in the locker room when the game is over.”

Senior defensive lineman Omar Hunter was part of a defense that held the Seminoles to 95 yards of total offense in the loss.

Hunter said Muschamp’s insult hit home with him and the other players.

“That’s pretty bad,” Hunter said. Guys really took that comment hard. They wanted to improve and get better, you know, coach loves this football team, and this football team loves coach.

“Hearing that from him, that did make us a little more focused and hungry to get better this offseason.”

Muschamp saw a difference in his team as it prepared for Ohio State in the Gator Bowl.

The Gators were 6-6 at the time and in danger of becoming the first Florida team to finish a season with a losing record in 32 years — UF finished 0-10-1 in 1979, Charley Pell’s first season as coach.

Looking to avoid the notoriety that tends to stick with a team given such an unimpressive distinction, players returned from the Christmas holiday with a focus that had been lacking during the regular season.

“When you’re 6-6 at Florida, it’s never good,” Muschamp said. “But you also find out who’s on board and who’s not with your football team. And I knew then with that football team, and the team we’ve got now, that we had a bunch of guys who had bought into what we were doing.

“There was no wavering or guys wondering if we were doing the right things. That’s really where I saw some good things coming.”

Those positives transitioned into the 2012 season.

The Gators restocked in several critical positions and added the necessary depth to compete in the Southeastern Conference.

They also added a toughness that has helped No. 4 Florida (10-1, 7-1 SEC) thrive in grind-it-out games.

Muschamp has seen a completely new team this season.

“Night and day,” he said. “You look at the adversity we’ve faced through the year in different games and different circumstances and how we handled it. Top to bottom. Offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff are all included in night and day.”

Those differences have Florida in a position few could have envisioned coming into the season.

After stumbling through the year last season, the Gators have a chance to put themselves in the driver’s seat for a BCS Bowl berth with a win against No. 10 Florida State (10-1, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) on Saturday.

For a team that was called soft by its coach less than a year ago, Florida has recovered quicker than expected. Punctuating that recovery with a win against Florida State, both an in-state rival and the team that caused Muschamp’s declaration last season, would be an ideal end to the regular season.

“It’s what you come to Florida for,” senior linebacker Jon Bostic said. “You want to play in big games like this.”