Florida Gators Football: A Real SEC Contender or Just an Illusion?

Joe RogersContributor IIISeptember 28, 2012

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 29:  Head coach Will Muschamp of the Florida Gators points during the game against the Georgia Bulldogs  at EverBank Field on October 29, 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Magic is a performing art that stretches the boundaries of belief and entertains audiences by creating illusions of seemingly inconceivable acts or feats.  It is believed to date back to the middle of the 16th century.

Fortunately for Will Muschamp, his name is not likely to be mentioned just yet in the same breath as the famous Blackstones (Harry and Harry Jr.), The Great Harry Houdini, David Copperfield or even Siegfried & Roy.

Unlike these famous illusionists, Muschamp has only performed a few tricks since his arrival in Gainesville in December of 2010.  His biggest act of deception was performed last season when he and his Gators duped their audiences at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium into believing that they were contenders for an SEC title after a 4-0 start.

Following that impressive start, which included victories over two SEC opponents (Tennessee and Kentucky), Muschamp's secrets and tricks were exposed as chicanery.  Four consecutive losses later (Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia), the curtains were closed on what many were led to believe would be a successful season.  The Gators finished 7-6.

Well, Muschamp and his Gators are up to their old tricks again.  Entering an off-week in preparation for the No. 3-ranked LSU Tigers' visit next weekend, Florida is atop the SEC East standings with another 4-0 start (3-0 in the SEC), and is currently ranked No. 11 in the AP poll

So, the curiosity is starting to arise much as it would at a Criss Angel show.

Can it be?  Is it for real?

Well, my final answer is yes. 

I'm going to save my lifelines for Coach Muschamp, because when you are coaching in the toughest conference in the country, you could always use some assistance.

"We are a better team," Florida coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators' 38-0 victory over visiting Kentucky on last Saturday. "We are a more physical team on both lines of scrimmage. I think we're deeper and more mature, and I think we handle things a lot better.

"I think we are a more talented team than we were a year ago in some critical spots, but we have to continue to press forward because we are not where we want to be."

The defensive side of the ball is one of the areas Muschamp was referring to.  The Gators are currently ranked 20th in the country in total team defense, allowing just an average of 305 yards a game.  Another area that is much improved from a year ago is the turnover margin.  The 2K12 version of the Gators are ranked 17th nationally, compared to a year ago when they finished 113th.

Another notable improvement from a year ago is at the all-important quarterback position where sophomore Jeff Driskel has been nearly flawless after winning the full-time job over fellow sophomore Jacoby Brissett. 

Driskel has not put up the gaudy numbers that Gators fans have become somewhat accustomed to, but he has been more than efficient (55-79-1 for 698 yards and four touchdowns).  The key is that he has only thrown one interception out of his 79 attempts.

With the threat of a passing game this season, it should open things up for senior running back Mike Gillislee, allowing him to eclipse the 1,500 yards rushing mark.  Also, through the Gator's first four games, receivers Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar have emerged as very reliable targets for Driskel, giving the Gators a little more chomp than they demonstrated last season.

All of this, coupled with with victories at hostile Kyle Field over the newcomer Texas A&M Aggies, and at Neyland Stadium over a much improved Tennessee team in front of 100,000-plus screaming diehard Volunteer fans, means the Gators shown maturity beyond their years, which is why I believe Florida is not just a semblance of a contender, but the real deal.

With that being said, the Gators have an incredibly tough schedule remaining, including dates with the currently ranked third, fourth, fifth and sixth teams nationally. The Gators are still going to need Muschamp to reach into his bag of tricks at least a few times to secure a ticket to the big show in the Georgia Dome on December 1 where he would most likely meet another master of trickery (Les Miles of LSU or Nick Saban of Alabama) for the SEC Championship Game.

Don't forget coach, you have my lifelines if you need them.


Joe Rogers is a college football writer and operates the website The College Football Bowl Report.