Drawing in the margin

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There are plenty of reasons for Florida's transformation from an average team in 2011 to one of the nation's elite this season.

The biggest, however, is turnover margin.

The third-ranked Gators (11-1) were minus-12 last season, giving up the ball 26 times and forcing only 14 -- which is the lowest single-season total in school history since the school started keeping fumble stats in 1950. Florida is plus-17 this season.

That's a turnaround of 29 turnovers.

"If you really want to look at a stat where we're different as a team, that's huge," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "That's the tell-tale for our entire season."

Florida is fifth in the country in turnover margin, trailing Kansas State (plus-21), Kent State (plus-21), Oregon (plus-19) and Boise State (plus-18). The Gators have forced a turnover in all but one game this season. Last season the Gators failed to force a turnover in five games and forced just one in a winless October.

Forcing more turnovers was the defense's No. 1 priority coming into the season. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn showed film of NFL teams forcing turnovers. The players ran turnover drills over and over again. The staff constantly harped on turnovers -- every day, every meeting, every practice.

"We put a big emphasis on that this offseason, not that we didn't do that last year," defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "You just have to keep working on them at practices. If you come out to one of our practices, you'll see guys as soon as the ball's thrown have 10 guys trying to strip the ball from the ball-carrier's hands. It's like conditioning -- you push yourself to do it and in the games it just happens for you."

Being in the defensive system for a second year has played a role, too. Cornerback Jaylen Watkins said his interception against Kentucky was a play he wouldn't have made last season because he wasn't as comfortable in the defense and wouldn't have been able to make the adjustment to the route quickly enough.

"I didn't have the knowledge of the game," Watkins said. "Watching film and being a self-evaluator and saying, 'I could have done this better.' I think all of us have done that this year, so that's why everybody is making plays."

While the defense is forcing more turnovers, the offense has done a much better job of not losing the ball. Florida has committed 12 turnovers, a total that would stand as the fewest in school history if the Gators don't turn the ball over against No. 21 Louisville (10-2) in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Wednesday.

What's even more remarkable is that half of that total came in one game (Georgia). That was the only game the Gators lost, and they've turned it over just twice in the four games since then.

"If there's one stat you really chart every week, it's ball security," offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. "We stress to the kids we want to be in the top 10 in the nation [in turnover margin]. It is evident that if you're in the top 10 in the nation then you're probably going to be a team with a winning record.

"It takes both sides of the ball. It takes our defense and special teams getting them and it takes us [the offense] taking care of it."