By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NEW ORLEANS – The strength of the Southeastern Conference is evident. It is perhaps because of that strength – the fact that a one-loss Florida team didn’t win the SEC East and didn’t have the opportunity to vie for the league title – that the Gators aren’t playing for the BCS Championship.
Still, there is no lack of focus in Florida’s preparation for the Allstate Sugar Bowl, head coach Will Muschamp made clear in Tuesday’s press conference at Marriott Convention Center in New Orleans.
No. 4 Florida (11-1, 7-1 SEC) meets BIG EAST Champion and No. 22 Louisville (10-2, 5-2 BIG EAST) on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on ESPN.
“Every game is important,” Muschamp said. “As a competitor, I don’t care what you’re doing, it’s important. As a competitor, you want to play. That’s the way our football team approaches the game. With the University of Florida, there’s a lot of pressure in every game. We’re expecting to win them all.”
When a reporter asked Tuesday if the Gators might not be focused on the game because of the opponent, Muschamp quickly responded that such a premise was “hogwash.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to that at all,” Muschamp said. “I’ve seen a football team prepared and how they practiced, and we’ve been physical and we’ve practiced and prepared the right way. We’re playing a good football team. The films speak for themselves. We have great respect for the opponent. At the end of the day, regardless of who we play, we take care of it. As long as we take care of it the way we have, we’ll play well.”
The Difference In A Year: Jeff Driskel
Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel was forced into action as a true freshman quarterback a year ago when starter John Brantley went down with an ankle injury. His initiation came against eventual BCS Champion Alabama, a game in which Driskel also ended up injured.
A year later, Driskel has rushed for 409 yards with four touchdowns and has thrown for 1,471 yards. He has thrown just three interceptions this season, making the Gators one of just five teams nationally to throw three or fewer picks on the year.
Muschamp credits Driskel’s improvement largely to his maturity as a player and person.
“I think the game – as you continue to play, the more reps you get – slows down for you,” Muschamp said. “You watch us against Florida State, which I think is a quality defense, and I think he made some really good decisions and some really good throws, so I think the game is slowing down for him. I think here’s a guy that continues to gain confidence in what he’s doing at the position.”
Driskel’s progress is consistent with many members of Florida’s team in 2012 that has resulted in a turnaround from a seven-win season a year ago. A more mature Gator squad – the second under Muschamp’s direction - became just the sixth in program history to win 11 or more games in the regular season.
“In year two, you’re going to see a lot of steps forward in what we’re doing offensively, not just from Jeff, but up front, at receiver, at running back, because it’s year two in the system,” Muschamp said. “I think you saw a huge jump defensively because we have a lot of guys back, and we have a lot of guys back offensively next year.”
Phillips Bringing Veteran Experience To Gators
Shortly after Joker Phillips completed his head coaching career at the University of Kentucky – his alma mater - in November, Muschamp hired him to the staff at Florida as wide receivers coach.
Muschamp said Tuesday that adding a former head coach to his staff, brought the experience he was looking for to direct the wide receivers position.
“He’s an outstanding football coach and I felt like we needed to add experience at the position for the receiving corps that we’re still trying to develop,” Muschamp said. “Here’s a guy that’s been a head coach that I totally embrace having in the room. It’s easy to sit there and never have called an offense or defense and say what you shouldn’t do, but when you’ve sat in the chair before, it’s a little bit different.”
Muschamp said Phillips hasn’t been greatly involved in the Allstate Sugar Bowl preparations, he has warned his wide receivers that their new position coach is watching.
“He’s not done much in the Bowl game other than I told our receivers that they’ve got a month audition for their position coach, let’s do a good job,” Muschamp said. “I think those guys have responded the correct way.”
Heads or Tails?
The coin toss at Wednesday’s Allstate Sugar Bowl will feature a star-studded lineup.
Legendary football standouts Tom Jackson (Louisville), Emmitt Smith (Florida) and Danny Wuerffel (Florida), along with boxing great Muhammad Ali, the Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Century” will join the team captains on the field for the opening coin toss.
Smith re-wrote the Florida record books during his time in Gainesville, shattering the school’s 40-year-old single-game rushing record in his first full game and broke the 1,000-yard mark in the seventh game of his freshman season. He was selected in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys and played 14 seasons in the NFL, setting the NFL career rushing record at 18,355 yards.
Wuerffel captured the 1996 Heisman Trophy, leading Florida to a 52-20 win against Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl, which gave the Gators their first-ever national championship. His career included four SEC titles, more than 10,000 yards passing and an SEC-record 114 touchdown passes.