NEW ORLEANS — For the historical college football programs, the best years are like the best players. They are past you before you can blink. They are gone before you can fully appreciate their impact.
It is that way at the University of Florida, too. There have been seasons about championships, and seasons about awards, and yes, seasons about disappointment. There was the year Steve Spurrier won his Heisman, and the year Danny Wuerffel won his, and the year Tim Tebow won his. There was the season Spurrier won his national title as coach, and the two years that Urban Meyer won his.
Then there was 2012.
That was the year the Gators (11-1) learned to ball their fist again.
More than anything, that's what this season meant for the Gators. These were not the slickest Gators, or the most elusive, or the fastest. They were not particularly ballyhooed. They did not make scouts drool as they approached.
On the other hand, they were as tough as a day's work. They were hard, and they were relentless, and they didn't mind a little blood on their knuckles. They were scrap iron and barbed wire and lunch pails.
As legacies go, that isn't a bad one.
They brought the tough back. This Gators team didn't win a title, and they didn't have a player who captured the fancy of a nation. If you are to remember this season at all, and you should, it will be because of the way the identity of this team changed. From now on, this is who they are. They believe in the power run. They believe in being strong in the final quarter. They believe in wearing down their opponents.
From the sound of it, they believe the SEC might as well get used to it.
It was just over a year ago when Will Muschamp, the Florida coach, looked at his team and decided it was, well, cuddly. Congenial, even. Understand, the last thing a team wants to hear from its coach is that it is soft, because even the softest teams think they are carved from granite.
"You can't talk about being physical," Muschamp said Wednesday morning. "You can't convince yourself you're physical. You've got to practice that way.
"Last year, we were so lacking in depth, especially in the offensive line, that one or two injuries could have put us in a really tough situation. When we went into practice last year for the Gator Bowl, I said 'the heck with it. If we have an injury, we have an injury, but we're going to practice physical.' "
Over the offseason, Muschamp drove his players crazy — and into the weight room — by reminding them just far they were from being tough enough. Say this for Muschamp: No one has accused him of being too subtle to get his message across.
"I felt like I was challenged," said safety Matt Elam. "So I had to show him. You understand. I had to show him I wasn't soft to prove a point."
It took hold. Florida came from behind eight times to win, including three in the final quarter. In the Gators' biggest victories this season — LSU, South Carolina, FSU — the Gators were by far the better team in the late going.
Somewhere along the line, the Florida players started to believe they were the tougher team, and that in the end, it was going to pay off. Somewhere along the line, opposing teams believed it, too.
That's what physical teams do. They grind away the energy, and the will, of the opposing team. By the fourth quarter, the offensive line begins to open holes, and the running backs find daylight, and the defense seems to have the offense outnumbered. Turnovers happen. Big plays happen. Victory happens.
"Aside from the wins, the really pleasing thing to me is winning the fourth quarter," Muschamp said.
For Florida fans, it has been some time since they have seen this sort of toughness. Spurrier's best teams were about the Fun 'N' Gun, and no one was better at making sure his receivers got behind the other team's defensive backs. Meyer's best days were about daring someone to stop Tim Tebow.
Oh, there have been a lot of tough players at Florida over the years. Kevin Carter. Carlos Dunlap. Brandon Spikes. But to find this sort of collective toughness, you might have to go back to the Wilbur Marshall-and-company days of the 1980s.
As for next year? Who knows? Odds are, Muschamp finds new buttons to push. Maybe he'll wonder aloud if the team will grow complacent. Maybe he'll leave teddy bears in every locker.
Just a hunch, but odds are that next year's Florida team will be tough, too.