Experience Won't Win for Gators

As many college football teams look for an identity in 2009, the Florida Gators should be using their experience under Urban Meyer and staff to polish their identity and continue on the path of success instilled in his four years as the Gators' lead man. The Florida Gators have a chance to make history this year on the back of a great deal of experience, but that's not what will win them games.

When Urban Meyer and his staff took over as the coach at the University of Florida, there was bound to be a good deal of uneasiness among the ranks. Inserting new offensive and defensive systems are never easy.

The Gators were a talented and somewhat experienced group in 2005 and were able to parlay those two strengths into a 9-3 season. The talent was able to walk away from five teams on the schedule with blowout wins. A humiliating loss to Alabama (3-31), a stunning loss to less talented South Carolina (22-30), and an ugly offensive game loss to LSU (17-21), had the Gators guessing about their own identity.

Tough wins against Tennessee (16-7), Georgia (14-10), Vanderbilt (49-42), and Iowa (31-24) in 2005 were games that the Gators could build on heading into 2006. It was year that would turn out to be pretty special.

With their inaugural campaign behind them, Meyer and his troops were able to turn around three losses and four close wins to a remarkable one loss and seven lose wins in 2006. It was mature group of players on both sides as the Gators had 21 prominent seniors in the two-deep roster that were making plays for them.

The lone loss was a war from the first snap. In that Auburn (27-17) game, quarterback Chris Leak was pummeled all night and it was a learning experience for an offense that would grow as the season went along.

One thing the team did muster throughout the season was a toughness that had been missing from Gator teams in the recent past. That toughness was the impetus for close wins against Tennessee (21-20), LSU (23-10), Georgia (21-14), Vanderbilt (25-19), South Carolina (17-16), Florida State (21-14), and Arkansas (38-28) in the SEC Championship Game.

By the time the BCS Championship Game rolled around and the Gators were squaring off against the Ohio State Buckeyes, the 2006 Gators were tough as nails and with a month to repair there was going to be no team that would defeat them on that night. They dismantled the Buckeyes every which way imaginable that night.

The 2007 season would be considered a step back for most Gator fans, but the fact is it was a necessary step in the evolution of Urban Meyer's program. The Gators were in every game in 2007, never getting beaten bad by any opponent. Still, it was the most losses incurred by a Meyer led Gator team when they finished with a 9-4 record.

One step in the right direction that season was that the Gators combined losses and close games added up to only six meaning they destroyed seven teams on the schedule. The youngest defense maybe ever suited up for the Gators that year and so the number of losses was going to be high and in fact the losses against Auburn (17-20), LSU (24-28), Georgia (30-42), and Michigan (35-41) showed the drop off from the experienced and talented Gator defense from the previous two seasons. That many close losses showed the lack of toughness that is brought on by experience and the fact that the Gators could not out-muscle their opponents that many times in close affairs.

Close games against Ole miss (30-24) and Kentucky (45-37) also almost got away from them, but the high flying Gator offense was enough to put those teams away. It was the offense in 2007 that was the most experienced squad on the team and had to outscore teams to win many games.

The 2008 team again saw the Gators returning a lot of experience, especially on offense, but also in some key areas on defense. An early loss to Ole Miss (30-31) was probably the stunner of the season in all of college football. There is no doubt that was the hardest fought game of the season for the Gators. The Rebels came in and took the ball away a few times and won the slug fest.

The hardened Gators then went on a tear and nobody really came close to them until the post season. The win over Alabama (31-20) in the SEC Championship game was another slug fest, with the two teams beating on each other for most of the game. The Gators reached down deep inside and mustered the strength to finish off the Crimson Tide in supposedly a battle of differing styles. The finesse laden Gators were the tougher team that night.

In the BCS Title win over Oklahoma (24-14), the Gators showed their toughness again on the national stage. It was a defensive effort that Oklahoma clearly had not seen before. Holding the vaunted Sooner offense to 14 points and leaving Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Sam Bradford beleaguered were two signatures to the season for the national champs. The Gators again proved they were the toughest team.

Flash forward to 2009 and the Gators are the prohibitive favorites to win it all again. The media will point to the 11 starters returning on defense, or Tim Tebow returning at quarterback, or the fact that the Gators have 19 starters returning from their national championship team. All of that will help, but the fact is the off-season and the team's preparation will eventually tell the story on this 2009 Gator team.

Gators' running back coach Kenny Carter knows exactly what will drive this team to repeat as national champs. It all starts a month or so after the final seconds of the previous season.

"Toughness, conditioning,and fundamentals are the things that really drive us," Carter said. "That is big time in our players and in our staff. Everybody is on the same page about that. You have to be able to play physical in this league on both sides of the ball. We emphasize it in practice, we emphasize it in our meetings, and we emphasize it in everything that we do.

"We have to be able to be the tougher team emotionally and physically. Everything that happens in the summer program and in camp. It is not the same as any place we've been. We will never compromise our physical style of play."

The Gators have matured enough and have added enough quality depth to the roster that they now approach practices like games. This group of players better come to practice with their helmets on tight, because they will not be playing on Saturday if they aren't ready. This staff and roster go as hard as any team out there, even during game week.

"We will have inside drill on Wednesday of game week," Carter said speaking of a running drill where the defense knows the offense will be running between the tackles and big time collisions are common and expected. "Very few people do that, but our kids are used to it. They love the physical style of our program because it separates the men from the boys. The peer pressure to be a man in our program is huge."

A few nicks and bruises are not going to cause the Gators to shy away from what they preach. Someone or two may have to sit out, a drill or two, but the tough practices will continue because it puts this team in the mindset this staff wants them in.

"The bottom line is that it's what we do," Carter said. " We don't worry about injuries because it's what we do. We are fundamentally sound and play hard. We aren't trying to run them in the ground. It's all about you have only so many opportunities that you have to be at your best on that play. So when we are in practice and in the inside drill, you have to get it done. That transitions to the games. You only have so many plays to make a play and do things the right way. Our guys understand that."

The practice habits of the team tend to be carried out on the field on Saturdays. These guys have been through the wars before, and they know how to win. Forget about the experiences, it's the spring, summer, and those Wednesday battles in practice that are going to separate the Gators from the boys in the fall.

"We do it on Wednesday because it is part of our whole make up," Carter said. "They take pride in it because they know that nobody is doing that on Wednesday, and we are."

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