USA TODAY Sports
Florida is on the verge of competing for national championships again. The Gators have a chance to remind the world of that fact in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville.
The first thing I noticed about Florida's 2012 football team was the 2011 team's pure joy after winning the Gator Bowl in January. Andre Debose balled out and smiled broadly, John Brantley put a career of frustration behind him, and Will Muschamp was beaming after seeing his Gators beat a good team for the first time.
But that initial enthusiasm faded when the story of Florida's spring and summer became the tale of a quarterback quandary. The Alligator put Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett on its cover as prizefighters, but no one had the belt; Florida's team poster was a bunch of helmets in a circle, no faces, and the narrative was that Muschamp's team bore a strong resemblance to its 2011 version: All defense and no offense, leaderless and lost in the flotsam of a strong SEC.
And I believed that narrative. To a point.
I've believed in Mike Gillislee for all of his time at Florida. You don't run for five yards a carry, I thought, without being good, and you can be good at running without being good at the other parts of being a running back that were reportedly keeping him from starring on the field.
Gillislee had also never run behind a good offensive line, with his minimal action in 2009 coming largely behind reserves, and the 2010 and 2011 editions of Florida's hogmollies rarely looking even average. With a slew of upperclassmen around, I thought Florida had a chance to have a good line.
I believed in Jeff Dillman and Brent Pease, too. I had heard from a source that one of the major issues for Florida in 2011 was a philosphical difference between Muschamp and Charlie Weis (and, by extension, Frank Verducci and Mickey Marotti), one that had Muschamp on the side of those who buy extra midnight oil and Weis with the souls who burn what they have. And Weis' offenses, so good at times with upperclassmen who had gotten accustomed to him and professionals who are paid to deal with complexity, just didn't seem to function in situations that required quick studies, like Florida in 2011.
Weis liked to begin drives — and games — with play-action bombs; Muschamp preferred to wear down foes and break them. Marotti and Verducci weren't capable of building a strong line capable of threshing a defense; Muschamp wanted that desperately, as his 2011 Gators defense got thrown into the same sudden change situations that doomed his excellent 2010 Texas unit.
Pease, coming from a Boise State brain trust that set up the pass with the run, fit Muschamp's needs perfectly. Dillman, from a place where athletes go to become unbreakable, was not going to allow Florida to wilt. Together, they looked like the guys Muschamp wanted, not the names he thought he needed.
I believed in these Gators for certain at halftime at Texas A&M, and I believed because of Dillman, not his charges.
Dillman had spent the summer getting praised by players and fellow coaches on social media, but Florida's win over Bowling Green, based on attrition though it was, did nothing to convince most that Florida was good, or different. Florida's offense and defense had spent the first half of that game bewildered by Johnny Manziel and behind the curve of Kevin Sumlin's spread. Unless something changed, Florida would be giving the Aggies their first SEC win in their first SEC game, the conference's modern gold standard yielding to a geographical and stylistic interloper.
Dillman walked to the locker room bellowing about the second half. And then many things changed, and Will Muschamp's Gators, Brent Pease's Gators, and Jeff Dillman's Gators showed up in the second half, and I believed very deeply that this Florida team was going to be hard to beat on a weekly basis.
I believe being hard to beat is the best thing a college football team can be: That's what Alabama under Nick Saban is, with a defense that doesn't hand over yardage or points except to an offense triggered by a special player or on a short field, and an offense that piles up yardage and never yields those fields.
2012 revealed Florida as possibly the hardest team to beat in America. The Gators fell behind on the road, fell behind good teams of all stripes (and Tennessee), and fell victim to an offense that was sabotaged by injuries to the deep, powerful offensive line that sapped them of their greatest strength. And yet the only time they lost was when a storm of turnovers sideswiped their SEC title dreams in Jacksonville, and only after Jordan Reed tried to do a little bit too much.
Florida beat the Texas A&M team that beat Alabama. It nearly beat the Georgia team that almost did, and did beat the LSU team that dominated the Tide. It chewed up a schedule that had more rocks than Notre Dame's, or Oregon's, or Kansas State's, or Alabama's, and it thrashed a Florida State team that has as much talent as any in the country and as much motivation to sew up the Sunshine State as it ever has.
Being hard to beat is what Muschamp dreams his teams will be, and Florida Never Breaks is the ethos that makes it possible. Believe in that, and you will believe in Florida.
It's hard not to be a believer right now, and it will be nigh impossible not to believe that Florida can play for a national title in 2013 if the Gators blast Louisville tonight, as they should. Florida's going to lose players who have made these Gators great and wonderful, sure, and Florida's going to have to deal with a lot more underclassmen playing bigger roles, but nothing about what the Gators have done is easy to write off as a flash in the pan at this point. Nothing about Will Muschamp seems to be fool's gold.
And that has made me happier to be a Florida fan than at any other point in my life. I've lived through five national titles in football and men's basketball, crowning moments for five different teams I loved dearly, and yet I have never felt so inexorably tethered to the Gator Nation as I did when the stands at Doak Campell Stadium were drained of their garnet and gold residents, leaving just the orange and blue wraiths come back from the dead to reclaim what has always been theirs to take.
Then, in that moment, I thought I needed to graduate from the University of Florida more than anything else in the world. After a little scrambling to secure a final semester that had been spent somewhat distracted by a football team that took more and more of my attention on a weekly basis, I did. I got to be a fan of my team when I decided I liked football in the mid-1990s; I get to be a member of its community from now until I'm ash.
I believe in the University of Florida. I believe in Will Muschamp. I believe in these Gators.
And, in all kinds of weather, I believe that we will win.