By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Is Florida back?
That seems to be a popular topic of discussion ever since the Gators’ 14-6 upset victory against No. 4 LSU on Oct. 6 in Gainesville.
Florida fans were cautious to get their hopes up after their team’s 4-0 start. And with good reason. Last season, the Gators began the year 4-0 before finishing with a 7-6 record and a win against Ohio State in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.
Back from what you might ask?
When talking about being “back” does that mean a return to the Steve Spurrier days of the 1990s where Florida consistently claimed the Southeastern Conference title (six in 12 years) and played for a pair of national titles? Or does it mean a return to the Urban Meyer days where the Gators logged a trio of 13-1 seasons and claimed two BCS Championships?
Feel free to make your interpretation of what “back” means, but the concept all comes down to this simple declaration that current head coach Will Muschamp uttered following the team’s Gator Bowl win last season.
“7-6 is not acceptable at the University of Florida,” Muschamp said.
The tradition of excellence that has filled the Florida football program consistently since 1990 brings with it high expectations.
The Gators have not won more than eight games or challenged for an SEC title since their last national championship season of 2009.
Many programs around the nation would be pleased with winning seven games each of the last two seasons and winning bowl games on the first week of January each year.
But those figures, while representative of a solid season, do not meet the standards that have placed Florida among the nation’s elite for more than two decades.
Through six games in the 2012 season, however, it appears that the Gators are right back on track with where they want to be and, at least to this point, it’s hard to argue that Florida isn’t “back.”
Yes, I understand that Florida has six more regular-season games remaining and the next two – against key SEC Eastern Division foes, Georgia and South Carolina – could make a big difference in the way the Gators finish their season.
Will they be back in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game or will they be playing outside of a BCS Bowl?
But what Florida has been able to do so far this season should not be discounted.
The strength of the SEC, especially in recent years, has been unprecedented. With league schools winning six consecutive BCS National Championships, and the powerhouses reloading each year, it is difficult to break into the league’s elite.
Yes, it has been done, but look at the momentum that has been generated by national championship teams from Alabama, Florida and LSU that kept each of those teams at the height of the game for several years.
In an average national ranking of preseason predictions, the Gators held an average ranking of No. 22 nationally. The media predicted Florida to finish third in the SEC East according to a preseason vote.
In the first BCS Standings of the 2012 campaign, Florida sits at No. 2...nationally.
Again, it’s still early, but that’s a pretty impressive jump for Florida. Not only do you have to account for Florida’s own improvements, you also have to consider its feat all the more impressive considering the other league teams it had to surpass on its way to the No. 2 spot.
As the Florida Times-Union pointed out earlier this week, the last four times that Florida began the season 6-0, it either played for the national title or finished in the top three of the national rankings.
The Gators won their last national title in 2008. Through six games of that season, Florida was 5-1, lest you forget the famed Tim Tebow speech following the team’s 31-30 loss at home to Ole Miss that season. In 2006, Florida was 6-0 coming off a win against No. 9 LSU at this point.
Aside from the numbers, there is one other indication that makes you think Florida is “back.”
This Saturday, ESPN’s College Gameday will roll into Gainesville to give the Gators their third appearance on that show this season. That marks Florida’s nation-leading 35th appearance on the show, but the first in Gainesville since 2009.
The Gators and Gamecocks square off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday in the Swamp.
And isn’t it ironic that the next step Florida needs to take in order to be considered “back” will take place this week against the man who set the standard in the first place?
Should be a fun one to watch.