If you listen to more than a few minutes of Will Muschamp talking, especially in post-game situations, you'll probably hear the phrase "focus on Florida." It's his code for pushing all the distractions aside, circling the wagons in the locker room, and making sure his team conducts itself like every game is a big one.
"We just need to focus on Florida in this game, and what our opponent does well and what we’re going to try to take advantage of in the game, and not worry about all the other stuff at this point. We just need to concentrate on us right now, and to me, that’s been our message to our football team really the entire season, and it is week-in and week- out. I don’t know that this week you need any extra motivation to prepare well."
It's easy and fair to assume that this band of Gators has a spite for Georgia that few other classes of Florida players in recent history can match. The recruiting class of 2010, now the senior class of 2013-14, is the first since Florida's class of 2004 to lose twice to Georgia — and no other senior class since 1991 has lost twice to Georgia. This class is also the last one since that 1991 class to lose two consecutive games to the Dawgs.
And Florida's 2012 loss was the kind of close, bitter defeat that stings for years, and maybe for life. Solomon Patton, part of that class of 2010, likely internalized the loss more deeply than any other Gator — after all, the loss was injury added to his own injury, a broken arm that knocked him out of the game early on and ended his 2012 season.
And yet, despite saying "This is the main game I've been waiting on all year," here's the rah-rah stuff from Patton that made that GatorZone article:
"Everybody [has] got to do their individual job," he said. "I think all together, everybody is on the same page and we'll be fine."
Does that sounds like a player who is focused on Georgia, or on Florida? Does Patton's Monday session with reporters sound any different?
Muschamp's process has become harder to grasp this year, as injuries have made the results of that process harder to stomach. But the process, and the idea that blue-collar workers produce the best product, is still key to Will Muschamp's program.
That program faces Georgia on Saturday as a battered husk of what it was in September. Gone are the experienced quarterback, the most complete running back, and the fearsome defensive tackle; in their places, and those of many other injured players, stand the backups attempting to live out another Muschampism: "Man down, man up."
If Florida can do what Muschamp is asking — focus internally on improving on a week-to-week basis, and replace its best players with overachieving backups — then Florida should theoretically be fine against Georgia, and every other team.
But that's a big if. And so we have to look at what Muschamp is saying about the specifics of change to find clues about how things will really be different.
Florida's not in a position to rely solely on itself, thanks mostly to injuries, but also to the long, slow recovery from the tail end of the Urban Meyer era. Much has been made of USC playing with fewer than 50 scholarship players of late, but Florida's injuries coming into the Missouri game limited the Gators significantly, and just 51 Florida players participated in Columbia. One of those, Cody Riggs, was on the field for literally one play; another, Jeremi Powell, tore his ACL in the game.
Florida came into the fall with 83 scholarship players, its best number under Muschamp, but of those 83 players, just 64 have played. And of those 64, just 10 — Kelvin Taylor, Demarcus Robinson, Ahmad Fulwood, Chris Thompson, Daniel McMillian, Alex Anzalone, Jarrad Davis, Nick Washington, Vernon Hargreaves III, and Keanu Neal — are from Florida's highly-regarded 2013 recruiting class, with injuries limiting Anzalone and forcing Washington to have season-ending surgery. And of those 10 players, just Taylor, Robinson, Fulwood, and Hargreaves have significant roles on offense and defense.
That is going to change on Saturday, with Muschamp indicating that freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick and Joey Ivie will play on the defensive line. Taylor's starting, too, and the Muschamp line on how Florida used its bye week to identify its strengths is telling:
I think we went back and looked at some things in the passing game and the throwing game that we identified that we do well. We need to go execute better and get our guys playing faster. So narrowing down, sometimes as a coach you feel like you've got some issues whether it's because of different things that pop up, you feel like you've got to do a little more to change this or change that. And that's where I think on both sides of the ball, we've done a little too much at times. And we'll scale back, to get our guys playing faster. And to me, this game all comes down to execution; go execute better than the other guy does, and that gives you a better chance to be successful. And if you don't execute, it really doesn't matter what you call. Let's quit thinking about plays and start thinking about players. And that to me is the most important thing.
This is Muschamp talking about making things simpler, consistent with his image as an old-school coach devoted to dominant defense and only as much offense as is necessary — but it is also Muschamp talking about deviating from his process, and making things simpler in the middle of the season, so that his team can win games without their best players and best conditions. It's clear that Florida's staff is adapting their process to the circumstances of individual situations, forsaking some of the consistency that Muschamp craves as much as any coach for depth, or offensive potency, or the specific approach that works best against Georgia, Vanderbilt, Florida State. There are shakeups underway on the offensive line and at running back, and may be more elsewhere — we don't know what we're going to see on Saturday yet, and have only assumptions based on hints.
This, for this coach, and this program, is new, and uncomfortable, but scarcely anything about this bizarre season has been familiar, much less comfortable. Focusing on Florida now means adjusting to what the Gators are, not molding them to what Muschamp wants them to be. It's a dramatically different challenge, requiring a significantly different approach, than what was expected for this season.
And it might not work, given how hampered Florida is and how harrowing its remaining schedule will be. But it might work, and that makes it worth the effort.