Can the Gators tough it out vs. Ohio State?

Published: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 at 10:35 p.m.

JACKSONVILLE — When Will Muschamp called out his team following its loss to Florida State back in November, he couldn't have known he was providing another storyline for Monday's Gator Bowl.

Remember what he said?

"We're a soft football team. That's the bottom line. I told our guys, ‘We're not a physically tough team and we're not a mentally tough team.' And self-evaluation is hard sometimes, but that's the facts. That's the facts. Hard to say it. I've been called a lot of things in my life, but soft's not one of them. And we are."

Even though Muschamp would go on to take the blame for it, he had thrown his players under the bus and the bus was filled with anvils and had spiked tires.

After a game in which Florida had again committed critical penalties and had a 14-yard loss on a fourth-down run up the middle, nobody was going to argue with him.

Of course, when the Gators were matched up with Ohio State, it set up a contrast in styles. For all of the struggles the Buckeyes have had this season, nobody has questioned how tough they are. There are probably no thicker hides in college football.

So on Monday we see if the Gators are any tougher than they were a month ago.

Tough enough?

Because you know a blue-collar team like Ohio State is going to try to impose its will on the mighty Gators right from the start.

"Definitely," said linebacker Andrew Sweat. "We go into every game trying to be tougher than our opponent so it's definitely a factor."

Muschamp promised a tough bowl camp and we have to take his word on it that it was. And certainly Florida's softness isn't going to be hardened in a month, especially with the strength coach gone and the new one yet to be hired.

This is a project that will take time to fix. But the toughness issue isn't just based on who can lift the most weight or hold his hand over a candle flame the longest.

It's as much about the mental toughness Muschamp talked about. It's about not jumping too soon when a defensive lineman is snorting fire inches away from your face. It's keeping your cool when shoves come after the whistle.

It's being smart.

"I think the team has always been tough," said senior Chris Rainey. It's the discipline that has been getting better the last three or four weeks."

It's something that Muschamp said the coaches were able to work on with a month in between games. So I asked him Saturday if the Gators are now tougher.

"I think we made some progress," he said. "Not having to get ready in a game-week situation where you're pressed to install a gameplan, you get away from that sometimes."

The most telling statistic about Florida's lack of mental toughness is that there are only nine teams in the country who have committed more penalties.

But there is another stat that tells a lot about Florida's overall lack of toughness. The Gators had fewer third-down conversions than all but one team in Div. 1 football (Florida Atlantic had one fewer).

Third downs are about toughness on both sides of the ball.

So is Florida tougher?

Or still softer than a baby's cheek?

We find out Monday. Because Ohio State is going to want to show them what tough is.

"It's a great opportunity for our guys," said Muschamp. "There is no question we have challenged them that way."

Tough enough Gators?

I think most Gator fans feel the same way.

They'll believe it when they see it.

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