By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. -- As Florida head coach Will Muschamp walked to the podium at SEC Media Days this past July, he had a lot on his mind. His Gator program had finished the previous season 7-6, narrowly avoiding UF's first losing season since 1979. There were new members on the coaching staff, and his team faced uncertainty on both sides of the ball.
He stood at the lectern, peering at a ballroom full of media members ready to question his record. In a moment that would foreshadow the mentality of Florida's 2012 season, he immediately set the tone.
Muschamp's opening statement was over 2,000 words, as he intricately broke down every facet of the Gator program. He spoke of a new attitude, the disappointment of year one and his philosophy on coaching. In an era of quick sound bites and coach speak, Muschamp's opening remarks were remarkably introspective. He covered the entire slate of Florida football, and those words served as the blueprint of a 2012 season that will end at the BCS Sugar Bowl on January 2nd.
Looking back at his statement now, it is clear to see what Muschamp's priorities were heading into this season.
"Every decision I make is for the long-term success of our program," he remarked. "As I said plenty of times, we're building a program, not a team. That's where we are right now."
But, the long-term health of Florida also relied on progress being made in his second season in Gainesville. For fans, and most importantly, his players to buy in, he had to prove that his system would work. The core of his philosophy revolved around toughness, another area he addressed when he spoke on that July day.
"Jeff Dillman, our strength coach, I feel like is really doing a good job with our players," Muschamp stated. "We've gotten stronger. We were outscored in SEC games in the last quarter 72 to 22. A lot of that to me goes to the weight room. You have to be stronger, well-conditioned. We were three and four in seven games in the SEC of scores decided by one or two scores."
He continued to illustrate his point, breaking down the importance of the game's final moments.
"You're talking about a one or two-possession game late in the game," he explained. "You need to win those games."
That simple point was the cornerstone of Florida's transformation from a 7-6 team in 2011 to an 11-1 team ranked third in the Bowl Championship series standings a year later. After losing leads in the previous season, Muschamp's squad got better in the final moments, outscoring teams 192-78 in the second half in 2012. A further breakdown of those numbers illustrate just how much stronger the Gators were than their opponents.
Five times this year Florida shut out a team they were facing in the second half. That includes a zero against fellow top-10 team LSU (14-6 win), while also holding eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and the TAMU offense scoreless in that game's final 30 minutes, another UF win (20-17). In only four of the Gators 12 games did a team score more than one touchdown in the second stanza. Even in the instances that teams did score multiple times in the second half, Florida was still 3-1 in those matchups overall.
Offensively their toughness was evident as well, as the Gators scored double digit second half points in all but one game on the year. That one game was Florida's lone loss of the season, a 17-9 setback against Eastern Division Champion Georgia. Behind talented senior Mike Gillislee, the UF offensive line imposed their will late, often times relying on just the running game to close out victories. The biggest statement of Florida's new philosophy came in their final regular season game against in-state rival Florida State, when the Gators scored 24 points on the road in the fourth quarter en route to a 37-26 win.
Why run the ball so much? It all goes back to that opening speech, where Muschamp explained how new offensive coordinator Brent Pease would execute the Gator attack.
"We will be a more downhill running game because of the backs we have," Muschamp shared. "That's not a shift in philosophy. That's what we wanted to be last year, but we didn't necessarily do that because of our front wasn't as good and the backs were smaller."
Another point of emphasis in those 2,000 words was turnover margin. "Our team emphasis, the number one thing is turnover margin," he commented. "We finished 113th in the country. We turned it over 26 times. It's a minor miracle we won seven games. That's a new point of emphasis."
Score another point for Florida's coach, as the Gators dramatic improvement in this phase of the game was also evident in 2012. After finishing, as Muschamp said, 113th in the category in 2011, UF finished fifth overall in that department a year later. The Gators forced 29 turnovers this year, more than doubling their total of 14 in 2011. They also protected the ball better, committing only 12 turnovers on offense in 2012 as opposed to 26 previously.
Very rarely do opening remarks made in July forecast an upcoming season. Coaches often speak of hopes, process and the need for a season to play out. On that July day, Muschamp told the entire SEC world just how Florida was going to win in 2012.
I hope you listened. I know next year I'll be all ears.