Defense Wins Championships. It is perhaps the most enduring football cliché, repeated to the point that it has lost its opening act (the quote is “Offense sells the tickets, but defense wins the championships.”) and its context (it’s actually about basketball), but if there’s any truth to it, expect to see a whole lot of grinning Gators come January.
In what is easily the most staggering statistic of its kind this year, Florida returns every single player from last year’s defensive two-deep roster, including all 77 linebacker starts from the past two seasons. Last year’s defense ranked fourth in the nation in points allowed (giving up only 12.9 a game) and finished in the top 20 in all three yardage defense categories.
And they’re all back. And all their back-ups are back.
Of course, the offense returns All-Universe QB Tim Tebow (yes, Spurrier changed his vote), the majority of his offensive line, a stable of promising running backs including Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, and some solid receivers (despite losing last year’s top two, including the versatile Percy Harvin).
So, what’s the catch? Well, there might not be one. Maintaining focus and avoiding injuries will be the keys to returning to the top of the mountain for Urban Meyer’s crew this year, the same intangibles and matters of luck that every championship team needs.
Even the schedule is manageable, considering the Gators could easily earn a title berth with one loss. Finding where that loss might come is a tricky endeavor on its own. The first four games are Charleston Southern, Troy, Tennessee, and @Kentucky. That’s a 4-0 start any way you look at it. Sorry, Lane, you’ll have to rest your pipes for now.
After that it’s a week off, followed by a crucial road trip to LSU. The Tigers may be improved from last year, but Meyer rarely stumbles in big games when he has a solid team, and this is his most solid Gator squad yet. Then it’s Arkansas and @Mississippi State. The homecoming tilt against the Razorbacks shouldn’t be much of a hurdle, but the Mississippi State trip could get interesting. This is the sort of game that previous Gator title-winning teams have lost, and former Meyer staffer Dan Mullen is the Bulldogs’ new head coach.
The Gators take on another pack of Bulldogs the following week in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. It is one of the top rivalries in the nation and has been pretty heated lately. Georgia probably already has about a dozen circles around this one, but Florida is the better team and will not let their guard down here.
November offers up Vanderbilt, @South Carolina, Florida International, and Florida State, a similar foursome of pushovers to that bag of marshmallows from September. Florida State should be better than last year, but the Gators simply will not be denied in the final home game for a talented group of seniors.
All that’s left is the SEC Championship Game, which will be against Alabama, Mississippi or a rematch with LSU. All of those are intriguing matchups, but having just spent the last month scraping cake off the bottoms of their shoes, it’s unlikely that Florida missteps this close to the promised land.
Jason Nafziger writes about College and Pro Football at On Football.