GAINESVILLE, Fla. –The Florida Gators aren’t "back."
They might be 11-1 against the nation’s toughest schedule, likely headed for the Sugar Bowl, and have victories over three teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings, but the Gators aren’t back.
Not according to UF coach Will Muschamp, anyway.
"Everyone wants to talk about how we have arrived," Muschamp said moments after Florida’s 37-26 victory over Florida State in Tallahassee. "Hell, we haven't won a championship. Until you've won a championship, I have a hard time saying we've arrived and we're back."
As good as 2012 has been, that’s the one thing the Gators won’t be able to do this season. They didn’t win the SEC’s Eastern Division, thanks to a 17-9 loss to Georgia, and therefore can’t win the SEC championship. Because of Notre Dame’s victory over Southern California late Saturday night, the Gators are out of the national championship picture, too.
This season isn’t a failure by any means. Most preseason predictions had the Gators going 8-4 at best and ending their season in the Outback or Chick-fil-A bowls. But success at Florida is measured in rings and banners, and the Gators haven’t been able to earn either of those since 2008.
"At the University of Florida, we're about winning championships," Muschamp said. "We're about going to Atlanta. We didn't achieve that goal and that's important to me. I understand the importance of that game in our league and having the opportunity to play in it. We didn't accomplish that."
They were close, though. UF is the loss against Georgia away from playing Alabama on Saturday for the SEC title. The Gators played terrible on offense against the Bulldogs, turning the ball over six times -- including four by QB Jeff Driskel. No. 6 was the killer. The Gators were driving for a potential game-tying touchdown (with a two-point conversion) in the final minutes but Georgia LB Jarvis Jones stripped TE Jordan Reed inside the 5-yard line and the Bulldogs recovered in the end zone to seal their first back-to-back victories in the series since they won three in a row from 1987-89.
That was on Muschamp’s mind even as he basked in the glow of the victory over the Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium.
"We shot ourselves in the foot too many times in Jacksonville or we’d be sitting here undefeated," he said. "That’s the bottom line."
Another bottom line: The offense has to get better before the Gators can really be “back.” It doesn’t have to be Steve Spurrier’s Fun-N-Gun or Urban Meyer’s spread option -- both of which ripped through the SEC -- but it does need to be better than 101st nationally. Florida has to be able to just run its offense to be effective and not have to resort to rollout passes to avoid pressure, wildcat plays, and jumbo packages to convert short yardage.
The offensive line has to get better, and it seems it will with the experience that freshman OT D.J. Humphries got this season and the addition of transfer OTs Max Garcia (Maryland) and Tyler Moore (Nebraska).
Several receivers have to become reliable, consistent playmakers. Florida’s wide receivers have caught a combined 58 passes this season. Seventy players throughout FBS have caught more passes than that. At least one of the four commitments -- Ahmad Fulwood (Jacksonville, Fla./Bishop Kenny), Alvin Bailey (Seffner, Fla./Armwood), Chris Thompson (Gainesville, Fla./Gainesville) and Marqui Hawkins (Columbus, Ga./Carver) -- has to make a Sammy Watkins-type impact in 2013.
Driskel also needs to improve after his first season as a starter. He needs to develop better feel in the pocket, learn to get rid of the ball quicker, and become more accurate with the ball.
Fix those issues, and the Gators very well could start winning championships again.
Until then, though, they’re not back -- although they’re happy to be back in New Orleans for the second time in four years.
"Very pleased [to likely be playing in the Sugar Bowl]," Muschamp said. "Obviously we want to play in the BCS national championship [game], absolutely, but we’ve had a fantastic year."