Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Gators confident they can bounce back
By Jeff Barlis
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida need not look any further than Saturday's championship game to see how quickly fortunes can change in the SEC.
Auburn was winless in league play last year, and Missouri won all of two games in its first spin through the South. A year later, they're playing for a ring.
With 2013 mercifully over, the Gators must pick up the pieces of a 4-8 season and try to find some positives after a bleak seven-game losing streak ended the season with a thud.
"Honestly, I feel like we hit rock bottom this year," offensive lineman Max Garcia said. "I feel like the only way we can go is up."
Will Muschamp is counting on his players using this year's humbling experience as motivation.
That's one way of looking at it. Another is to use the bitter sting of defeat as a motivating force during the offseason.
"It's a clean slate, but you still have to remember what happened," Garcia said. "And you want to not let that happen ever again. We don't want to feel that pain. We don't want to feel this pain ever again. I'm sick and tired of losing.
"Next year, we have that pain to sit in our hearts. We have to work through that, and we have to take that pain and make it into intensity, make it into effort, make it into want-to. We have to want to go out there and take the opposing will out of the [opponent]. That's what we have to work through."
Payback certainly can be a motivating force. After the season ended last Saturday, safety Cody Riggs spoke of exacting revenge upon the teams Florida will meet again in 2014.
The Gators should have a chip on their shoulder. In fact, head coach Will Muschamp is counting on it.
"It's a great lesson to be humbled in life a little bit sometimes -- as a coach, number one, as a staff and as players," he said. "Nothing wrong with that. That's good for us. ...
"You want to keep battling and keep playing if you're a competitor. Absolutely no relief at all [that the 2013 season is over]. You just want to be able to get out and continue to practice and improve. We've had a lot of young players continue to take a bunch of reps that have improved. A bunch of guys that we weren't really counting on this year that have come out and played. That will help our depth as we move forward."
There's another silver lining.
Florida's dizzying parade of injuries in 2013 sapped the team's strength physically and mentally. But the youth movement that resulted is a big positive for Florida. Several young players got invaluable experience as a result of injuries. True freshmen Kelvin Taylor, Vernon Hargreaves III, Jarrad Davis and Chris Thompson made starts at running back, cornerback, linebacker and wide receiver, respectively.
Florida also developed much-needed depth at the quarterback position after starter Jeff Driskel was lost in Week 3. Backup Tyler Murphy started six games before he was hurt. He ceded the job to redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg, who made the final three starts of the season.
"I think the future is very bright," Mornhinweg said. "We've got some guys coming back. We can't make any excuses. We were a little dinged up, but you really can't make any excuses. We've got some guys coming back, and I think we're going to be a very strong team."
Injuries heal, and painful memories can fuel an entire offseason of work.
"We're going to be working hard in the offseason," Mornhinweg said. "I never want to feel like this again. This is a terrible feeling to have, and we're going to be on a mission next year."
Next year. When the season is upon them next fall, Florida will have an unblemished record. Time should heal the wounds of 2013's painful losing streak, and the memories of an incompetent offense will fade. Eventually, Florida will foster some optimism as it begins anew with a rebuilt offense.
Like the Gators hope to do next season, Auburn and Missouri bounced back this year with new offensive coordinators. Gus Malzahn brought Rhett Lashlee with him from Arkansas State to the Tigers, while Josh Henson replaced David Yost at Mizzou.
Fresh faces, a clean slate and a healthy roster count for a lot. But for Muschamp, the rebirth of the Florida Gators starts with one thing.
"Roll your sleeves up and go to work," he said. "That's the bottom line. That's all you can do. Be a great leader, great motivator for your team and organization. That's all we're going to do.
"We're going to be fine. We're going to have a good football team next year, I can assure you of that. Sitting in that locker room with those guys, we're going to be fine. And that's what's encouraging for me. It's damn encouraging."