- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For seven months everyone has said it. Florida players, Gators coach Will Muschamp, offensive coordinator Brent Pease -- even defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Their claim: Florida's offensive line is significantly better than it was last season. The players are stronger and tougher, mentally and physically.
Pease even went so far as to say that the line is the strength of the offense.
The chance to prove that comes Saturday.
Fourth-ranked LSU (5-0, 1-0 SEC) comes to Florida Field with one of the best defensive fronts in the nation. Ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are projected first-round NFL draft picks. Two other players -- defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Kevin Minter -- are projected to be taken in the first three rounds.
"You go block this front you've done something," Muschamp said. "They're very good. They've recruited well. They've got depth. They're big, fast and physical. And there is no question if you're able to put a hat on this group and get some movement and be able to run the ball consistently [that] is going to be key in the game."
Florida's offensive line has been pretty productive so far even without tackle Matt Patchan, who hasn't played yet this season because of a pectoral injury, and having right tackle Chaz Green hobbled by an ankle injury. The Gators are averaging 224.5 yards per game rushing, and running back Mike Gillislee is averaging 100.5 yards per contest.
But those numbers were compiled against Bowling Green, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Kentucky. Of that group, Texas A&M has a solid run defense (106.0 yards per game) but Tennessee and Kentucky are giving up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground.
LSU is considerably better. The Tigers rank ninth nationally in rush defense (83.0 yards per game) and opponents are averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. The Gators relish the challenge, center Jonotthan Harrison said.
"I definitely feel like this is going to be a good game to tell exactly where our team's at," Harrison said. "Yes, we're going against some better athletes. But we, especially as an offensive line, we've come a far ways from last year. We're more meshed as a unit. We've been working this whole offseason for a situation like this."
The Gators (4-0, 3-0) certainly have a lot to prove. The offensive line played pretty poorly in 2011, especially during October. UF ran for 175 yards and averaged just 1.5 yards per carry against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. That, along with gaining just 54 yards on the ground against Florida State, is what prompted Muschamp to call his team soft in the locker room immediately after the 21-0 loss to the Seminoles.
When Mickey Marotti left to join Urban Meyer and become the strength and conditioning coordinator at Ohio State, Muschamp hired Jeff Dillman, with whom he had worked at LSU, and Dillman immediately put the Gators on an Olympic lifting program. It's a total-body and cardiovascular workout that stresses explosive movements and quickly builds strength.
Muschamp also hired Tim Davis as the Gators' new offensive line coach to replace Frank Verducci, who left the program to pursue other interests. The players have responded to Davis, and the result, the players say, is an offensive line that's tougher than it was a year ago.
"They're way more physical," nose tackle Omar Hunter said. "They come off the ball and they will hit you. They will definitely hit you."
But the group -- left tackle Xavier Nixon, left guard James Wilson, Harrison, right guard Jon Halapio and Green -- faces an additional challenge in pass protection. The Tigers are sixth in the SEC with 11 sacks, but they have 23 quarterback hurries, more than any other team but Auburn (26).
"You can't get in a one-dimensional game with these guys because they're going to be able to rush the passer and they're going to get you off the spot pretty quick as far as the quarterback is concerned," Muschamp said. "So staying balanced in what you do is very critical."
Complicating things would be a potential change at left tackle, where Nixon was replaced by freshman D.J. Humphries for the second half of the Kentucky game. Muschamp said the player who practiced the best would start the LSU game, and Pease said Humphries would definitely play against the Tigers even if he doesn't start.
Regardless of who's playing at left tackle, the offensive line's play will be the key to proving that the Gators are better than the past two seasons and are back among the SEC's elite teams.
"Games like this -- LSU, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia -- they all tend to tell you where you're going to be in the season and how good you really are," fullback Hunter Joyer said. "A lot of people still doubt us and don't really believe in this Florida team, so I think we need to make a statement this weekend."
Florida's offensive line has shown sizable improvement thus far, especially in the running game, but the scope of that improvement will start to be tested against LSU on Saturday.