September 22, 2012; Gainesville FL, USA; Florida Gators running back Mike Gillislee (23) runs with the ball as Kentucky Wildcats cornerback Martavius Neloms (1) attempts to defend in the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 38-0. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE
Right now, Florida's 2012 football season can be summed up in one word: Learning. Will Muschamp's learning how to be a very good head coach. Florida's offense is learning how to make the most of every situation. The Gators' defense seems to learn everything about its opponent at halftime each week. And we're learning, after performances like the one the Gators put on in a 38-0 shutout of Kentucky this Saturday, that these Gators might yet be players in the SEC East, SEC, and national title pictures.
The Gators got off to their typical slow start on Saturday, going three-and-out on their first two drives and allowing Kentucky to run 29 offensive plays in the first quarter. But the Wildcats' inability to finish drives (a fourth down stop and two missed field goals scuttled three that ended in Florida territory) kept them off the board, and the Gators got back to grinding out a win, with Mike Gillislee scoring on the ground, Jeff Driskel scoring on the ground and in the air, Jaylen Watkins getting the Florida defense on the board for 2012 with a pick-six, and Jacoby Brissett capping a plodding drive with his own plunge. Attrition made Florida's 38 points feel like a smallish sum, but another superb second half, especially on defense, made the deficit feel enormous.
Florida is doing things it hasn't done in quite some time, and doing other good things routinely: The Gators limited Kentucky to 50 yards in the second half, getting stingy after halftime for the fourth straight week, and 219 for the game, the first total under 275 yards for an SEC foe since Florida's defense annihilated Vanderbilt in 2010. The Florida offense topped 200 yards passing and rushing for the second straight week, the first such two-week streak since Georgia and Vanderbilt yielded as much damage in 2010. (2010 Vandy was bad.)
Florida still has a ways to go to be considered a favorite in any game against a top-tier team, nationally, but that learning is getting them to that plateau ahead of schedule. And, if nothing else, Florida looks like it can hang with LSU and Florida State at least briefly; pair that with the Gators' second half success, and it bodes well for their chances in close games against great teams.
It's not hard to learn to love a team like that again.