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Senior College Football Columnist

Muschamp's Gators anything but soft in bulldozing of No. 4 LSU


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Soft. Will Muschamp called them soft.

This was at the end of a forgettable six-loss 2011 season for Florida that included an oh-for-October stretch and a Gator Bowl that was more of a name-brand winner (Ohio State-Florida) than a Gators' winner (24-17). Muschamp, Florida's 41-year old raging inferno of a coach, proved that when he congratulated the Gators by emasculating them at the end of his first season.

"At the end of the bowl game last year, he called us all soft," Florida guard James Wilson said. "We took that to heart the whole offseason. No one likes to be called soft. You don't play for Florida and you're soft. We definitely have a standard that we have to pick up."

Consider the Gators shamed, embarrassed -- and on a corner-turning Saturday -- steeled. Their 14-6 win over No. 4 LSU decided little in the standings -– or even the national championship race -- for the moment. What it did was put that wry smile on Muschamp's face when he knows his team just kicked the hell out of someone.

More importantly, his team kicked it up a notch physically.

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"I would say, yes," safety Josh Evans concluded, "We're back to being a man's team."

The coach's smile has made its appearance in various places and moments across the years at Georgia, LSU, Auburn and Texas when Muschamp was playing and learning his craft. But halfway through his second season in his first head coaching job, Muschamp found out he could tear down, build up and toughen an entire program.

From scratch.

"It's a big change, coming in as this new guy that you don't really know too well," said Evans, a junior, who was recruited by Urban Meyer. "From Day 1 and a couple of weeks in, we knew this was a guy who could change this team around. That's something we needed."

It will be a day remembered for how Mike Gillislee ran (146 yards, two touchdowns), how the defense persevered and how Muschamp couldn't hide his feelings. Less than 30 seconds into his postgame comments he used the word "physical" twice and praised strength coach Jeff Dillman.

You need another clue where Florida football is headed?

"That was typical 1980 SEC right there today," Muschamp said.

Why the coach picked that year out of the air wasn't immediately evident except that it was a very good year for Florida's blood rivals Georgia, Muschamp's alma mater. That was the Dawgs' national championship year, a 12-0 year, a year in which Herschel Walker rushed for 1,600 yards and finished third in the Heisman voting as a freshman.

A year when the SEC looked much like it does today. Run. Stop the run. That's a good place to start if you want to win. Muschamp was nine that season.

Thirty-two years later not much has changed. Any resemblance between that squad and these Gators is purely superficial at this point, but you can see similarities. Gillislee carried a career-high 34 times, getting 112 of those yards in the second half. The Gators, it would seem, have their Herschel-like hoss. Gillislee has carried the ball 103 times in five games. He scored the game's only two touchdowns, both in the second half, accomplishing something we haven't seen for a while in the regular-season from the Tigers.

LSU's defense submitted. Just a little, but the Tigers did bend. LSU ran only 50 plays in the game. Florida ran the ball 58 times.

Florida got its man card back and that's really all we knew for sure here. No. 4 LSU lost and looked distressingly bad offensively doing it, but Tigers coach Les Miles literally shrugged it off when he considered the implications.

"[They're in the] Eastern Division," Miles said. "We could meet them again later."

A rematch -- and victory in -- the SEC title game would go a long way toward repairing Saturday's damage. But that seems so far away right now. The loss ended LSU's 18-game regular-season winning streak and made the Tigers look vulnerable. New Orleans-in-January vulnerable.

Afterward, Muschamp made sure he hammered home his message. While Twitter blew up mocking the game's clunky offenses, while West Virginia's Geno Smith was lighting it up again, while Arizona and Stanford played an overtime thriller, Florida drew a line in the Swamp.

In the same game that LSU went 28 consecutive snaps without a conventional first down -- there were two by penalty -- Florida locked it down by running the ball on its last 24 consecutive snaps.

"That's the difference in playing in this league and these other leagues you see playing on TV," Muschamp said. "I know you like all those points being scored but [in those other leagues] the quarterback won't make it through the season playing in our league."

Muschamp is fond of saying the SEC is a line-of-scrimmage league. No more soft-serve, then, for the Gators.

Last season they were outscored 86-59 in the fourth quarter. This season they haven't allowed a fourth-quarter point five games in. Last year they lost all four October games by an average of more than 18 points. This season they're undefeated (5-0) and in the top 10 a week into October.

"That's something they know that's been pounded into their heads," Muschamp said of his players. "It's gratifying to me because of the way we lost games last season."

For long stretches the game threatened to turn the week's best Nick Saban quote back on the Alabama coach. Is this what football wants to be? At halftime, LSU led 6-0 making last year's LSU-Alabama I look like last week's Baylor-West Virginia. A track meet.

The game flipped in the third quarter when LSU middle linebacker Kevin Minter was knocked from the contest about 6 ½ minutes in. Suddenly, Florida found bits of daylight that hadn't been there. Gillislee completed an 85-yard drive with a 12-run that gave the Gators their first lead. Just as suddenly, 7-6 felt like 70-6.

"I could just sense they weren't coming off as hard as they were in the first half," Evans said. "That's what we do. We just tried to pound them."

Except that the Tigers had one more push. If this is the end for LSU, it will be traced back to quarterback Zach Mettenberger having not been all that for Miles. By the look of things, either the coach doesn't trust the Georgia transfer and his passing skills -- they're certainly better than Jordan Jefferson's -- or Mettenberger has been overvalued.

Certainly playing Florida's defense has something to do with it. But with his team down one, Mettenberger found enough time from his own 21 to find Odell Beckham Jr. wide open 56 yards downfield. It was at that point, badly beaten safety Matt Elam rushed over and stripped the ball from Beckham.

A video review confirmed the turnover and set Florida on its way to a 77-yard drive that made 14-6 look like 140-6. During the drive, Minter emerged Lazarus-style from the locker room to lend whatever help he could. It wasn't enough, but he was still amazing.

At the end of a game that made something tougher out of the Gators, Minter might have been the best player on the field. And that seemed fitting after 20 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.

Just don't call him -- or anyone associated with this game -- soft.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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