I have attended two Florida football games so far this year. They could not have been more different affairs.
The first one was the opener against Bowling Green. In it, UF played everything as vanilla as possible on both sides of the ball. There was the quarterback switching routine, with Jeff Driskel playing a quarter, then Jacoby Brissett playing a quarter, and then Driskel playing the second half. The defense couldn't stop the Falcons' short passing game, and the offense couldn't line up and get a physical first down. It looked like the kind of prelude that each of the past two seasons had.
The other one was Saturday's big win over LSU. The stadium was more alive than it had been since probably around 2009, and the team played in such a way as to earn the live environment. The crowd celebrated each LSU punt as though it was the biggest stop of the game, the touchdowns led people to jump up and down in addition to cheering, and the oft cramping Tiger defenders elicited boos from a crowd skeptical that they were really hurt. It's been a while since the Swamp lived up to its reputation, but it was at its best this time around.
All phases of Florida football are on their way back. The team beat its first opponent worth bragging about in a few years, and the fans actually filled up the home stadium and made it hell on the opposing team. They're not totally back, but they're finding their way there.
An offense that is back to the level of 2006-09 doesn't finish the first half against anyone with just 47 total yards. It doesn't have four of its first six drives finish having lost yardage. It doesn't squander great field position on three consecutive first half drives. No, Will Muschamp is not looking to have the kind of high flying offense that Urban Meyer used to run, but he's not looking for a half of four punts and two lost fumbles either. The defense is pretty much back, but it never really fell that far either.
When LSU pinned Florida back at its own 15 yard line early in the third quarter, I thought that it was another drive all about field position because there was no way Florida could drive 85 yards for a score. Technically I wasn't entirely wrong because LSU aided the ensuing touchdown with a 15-yard penalty, but I was definitely incorrect about the eventual end of the drive. It was a big enough statement that when they got the ball at their own 23 on the next drive, I wondered how the Tigers would keep them out of the end zone. Somehow Florida's line was pushing LSU's line around, and it was a consistently repeatable outcome.
In other words, I allowed myself to believe in the team again and it justified that belief. When LSU's offense faced similar field position in the fourth quarter, I told myself that this Florida defense wouldn't allow Zach Mettenberger to drive that far on them. They proved me and everyone else in the stadium correct on that point. The promise of lock down defense that came with Muschamp's hire has never been more important or seemed to be more validated.
The team still has plenty of rough edges to get smoothed out before it is ready to call itself a true contender for even the SEC, much less something more. Driskel regressed on his pocket awareness some, and you can count on one hand the number of times the coaches trusted him to throw in the second half. And granted, LSU has one of the best pairs of pass rushers in the country, but the pass protection was nowhere near as good as the run blocking. Matt Elam made a tremendous play to strip the ball from Odell Beckham, Jr. after the latter's long reception, but Beckham was all by himself when he made that catch. It's encouraging to see how much better the Gators play in the second half, but they would be in better shape if they could play that way from the start.
No, Florida football isn't completely back. However, you can see how they are well on their way down the road to getting there. It took a second coaching hire after the first legend left the program to get that kind of hope, but for now, it appears it won't take that much to have it again after the second legend left.