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Florida won't play for title, but FSU win shows UF is back among elite

"It has to be fixed. It's broke a little bit right now. But the way you fix it is hard work."-- Urban Meyer on the state of the Florida football program when he resigned on Dec. 10, 2010.

"We're a soft football team. That's the bottom line."-- Will Muschamp on the state of the Florida football program after a 21-7 loss to Florida State on Nov. 26, 2011.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida fans in the corner of Doak Campbell Stadium chanted U-S-C, U-S-C as night fell and the temperature dropped. Gators coach Will Muschamp cracked wise during his postgame interview. "Pulling for Fight On," Muschamp said. "What do they say? Fight On? Something like that? ... I've always been a big Lane Kiffin fan."

The good vibes from the Sunshine State couldn't help the Trojans. The Trojans couldn't help the Gators. Notre Dame's win in Los Angeles most likely eliminated Florida from the national title picture. Disappointed, Gators?

Don't be.

Think about how you felt this weekend last year. Your program was 6-6 and appeared stuck in neutral while much of the rest of the SEC was in fifth gear. Saturday, the 11-1 Gators came within 10 USC points of playing for the national title. Because of Florida's résumé, its place in the BCS standings and a rule that says a team ranked in the top four of the BCS standings must make a BCS bowl, the worst the Gators can do at this point is a BCS at-large berth (probably to the Sugar).

Sure, the Gators would have liked to play for the national title. They're still kicking themselves about that loss to Georgia. But few teams in the nation came so far in one season. This team features many of the same players from the teams Meyer and Muschamp described in the quotes above, but the Gators have bullied their way out of mediocrity and back into college football's elite. Saturday's 37-26 win was a microcosm of Florida's season. The Gators stormed from the gates; then they struggled; then they found their way again after forcing a critical turnover.

If not for a case of fumbleitis in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, Florida would be preparing to face Alabama in the SEC title game with a trip to the BCS championship game on the line. Instead, Florida players and coaches boarded the buses for a two-hour ride back to Gainesville as Notre Dame and USC kicked off at the Coliseum.

Had USC won, Florida would have had a strong argument for inclusion in the BCS title game. The Gators put together one of the most impressive résumés in the nation. They have wins against Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State, and those teams finished the regular season with a combined record of 40-8. Those wins didn't have to be pretty. They stand on their own merit. But the Gators certainly didn't score any style points in hideous victories against Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State. That is Florida's issue in a sport ruled by opinion. The Gators never win pretty. In that way, they are their coach's team. Saturday, Muschamp was asked whether the Gators won "sexy" with a five-turnover performance and 244 rushing yards against a defense that entered Saturday No. 1 in the nation against the run.

"I think it was a really sexy win," Muschamp said with a smile. "I was going to come in with my shirt off, but my players didn't want me to."

It was sexy in the way that women find the older, balder Sean Connery sexy. The Gators won rugged, just as they have for most of the season. They rolled to a 13-0 second-quarter lead, and after Jelani Jenkins intercepted an E.J. Manuel pass and returned it to the Florida State 24-yard line, it seemed Florida would put the Seminoles away before halftime. Then the Gators got cute, attempting a trick play that got quarterback Jeff Driskel sacked and forced a third-and-31 that took them out of field-goal range. Florida State drove for a field goal to close the half, and the momentum began to shift.

The Seminoles scored touchdowns on two of their first three second-half possessions and then tacked on a field goal to make it 20-13. Doak Campbell Stadium rocked like it was 1998 and Marcus "Rooster" Outzen had just scrambled for another first down. As the third quarter ended with Florida converting a third down with a 24-yard Trey Burton run, a Florida win still seemed an unlikely outcome.

Florida kicked a field goal 93 seconds into the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 20-16, but another Seminoles touchdown might have ended Florida's chances. The Gators needed a huge moment. As Manuel tried to escape the grasp of Florida defensive end Lerentee McCray, freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison -- who was in the game because of an injury to Jenkins -- provided that moment when he hammered Manuel.

"When it happened, I stopped for a minute," Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said. "Is [Manuel] asleep? That's the first thing that goes through your mind. ... The next thing I'm looking for is 'Where's the ball?' Because he didn't hold onto that. Dominique Easley scooped it up."

On Florida's next play, Mike Gillislee squirted through the middle and raced away from the Seminoles for a 37-yard touchdown. After a three-and-out featuring Florida State backup quarterback Clint Trickett, Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson returned a punt 50 yards to set up another Gators touchdown. As they have most of the season, Florida's defense and special teams set up the offense.

Soft teams don't do that. But the Gators haven't been soft for a long time. They took their coach's criticism last year to heart. After losing to Florida State in Gainesville, the players had a meeting and pledged to never get beaten again because they weren't tough enough. "That was it," Easley said. "We told each other we were not going to fail this year."

Aside from one game against a team that will play next week for a spot in the national title game, the Gators didn't fail. For the players who endured the humiliation of last year's loss to the Seminoles, Saturday's win was especially sweet. "It was a personal game for us," Easley said. "They had to feel that same pain that we felt. They had to feel that same black hole in their heart that we felt. We just had to give them what we felt -- which was pain." (In case the wording of that quote leads you to believe Easley was growling and snarling as he said those words, know that as he spoke them, he held a massive tub of animal crackers.)

After the win, Muschamp politicked a little for his team, but he refused to say the Gators deserved anything more than an excellent bowl trip. "We have no one to blame but ourselves for not getting it done in Jacksonville," Muschamp said. "That rests on my shoulders." By the same token, Muschamp also refused to declare Florida's program "fixed" despite evidence that he has accomplished that task.

"At the University of Florida, we're about winning championships," Muschamp said. "We're about going to Atlanta. We didn't achieve that goal. That's important to me. ... Everybody wants to talk about we've arrived and we're back. Hell, we haven't won a championship. Until we've won a championship, I'm going to have a hard time saying we've arrived or we're back at all."

If Muschamp's attitude has truly permeated the team, the next few years could be quite interesting in Gainesville. Because the Gators won't be satisfied until they're clutching another crystal football.

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