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Post Offense vs. defense

Friday December 5, 2008

I was listening to Cowherd’s interview with Gary Danielson yesterday, and the SEC championship was framed as a clash between defense (Alabama) and offense (Florida). This isn’t to pick on what was a good interview or disagree with that storyline because – let’s be honest – most people are looking at it that way because those have been two very dominant units.

But framing the game that way tends to underrate the other elements of the game – namely Alabama’s offense and Florida’s defense and special teams. First let’s look at the Alabama offense. It has most of the pieces you’d expect from a quality offense. The line is veteran and talented. Knowshon Moreno might be the best back in the SEC, but no school has a running back tandem as good as Coffee and Ingram, and Upchurch isn’t bad. Receivers are adequate until you come to difference-maker Julio Jones. It’s a long time ago, but the way this offense came out, mixed it up, and took it right at teams like Clemson and Georgia earlier in the season opened a lot of eyes.

As the Senator notes, it all comes down to quarterback play for the Tide. He’s been shaky a few times this season but nothing like the roller coaster ride that was 2007. If he has time, he should be fine, and Alabama’s experienced OL should help them here against a talented but young Florida defensive front.

Then there’s the Florida defense. It was assumed during the offseason that the Florida defense had to be better because – hey- it couldn’t get much worse. I don’t think many people expected this kind of improvement though. How good is the Florida defense? You know that great Alabama defense everyone sees as a strength in this game? They check in at #3 in total defense (248.5 YPG) and #3 in scoring defense (11.5 PPG). Pretty damn good, right? Florida is #7 (275.67 YPG) and #4 (12.3 PPG) in the same categories. Less than 30 YPG and 1 PPG separates these two defenses.

Florida also has the edge in turnovers. They lead the nation in turnover margin thanks in large part to being third in the nation with 32 takeaways. Florida has 23 interceptions this year, and that’s just one less than Alabama’s total number of takeaways.

Any distinction between the two defenses becomes even more hazy when you look at common opponents.

Common Opponent – Georgia: Florida W 49-10, Alabama W 41-30. Both teams had one explosive half against the Dawgs, but Florida’s defense held Georgia off the scoreboard better than Alabama’s. You can argue whether or not Alabama let up, and Florida did give up close to 400 yards to the Georgia offense.

Common Opponent – Kentucky: Florida W 63-5, Alabama W 17-14. Not even close. Kentucky had the Tide nervous, and Florida reduced the Cats to rubble.

Common Opponent – LSU: Florida W 51-21, Alabama W 27-21. Both teams feasted on LSU turnovers, but the difference was in the ground game. LSU rushed for 201 yards against Alabama but only 80 against Florida. Did the nature of the game matter? The LSU-Alabama game was a close one where LSU could stick with the run. At Florida, the Tigers were down 20-0 and in comeback mode not long into the second quarter.

Common Opponent – Ole Miss: Florida L 30-31, Alabama W 24-20. Both teams played Ole Miss close, and Florida actually held Ole Miss to fewer yards than Alabama did. The difference might have been turnovers. Florida forced only one Rebel miscue, and Alabama came away with three. Florida in 2008 mostly avoided the big play bug that hurt them so much in 2007, but an 86-yard TD pass in this one made them pay. Again, Alabama let up in this game and saw a 24-0 lead evaporate.

Common Opponent – Tennessee: Florida W 30-6, Alabama W 29-9. Both teams held Tennessee to a few field goals, but Florida held the Vols to nearly 100 fewer yards.

Common Opponent – Arkansas: Florida W 38-7, Alabama W 49-14. Alabama was definitely the more dominant team against the Hogs. Florida was in a 17-7 game in the second half while the Tide used offense and defense to put their game away by halftime in a foreshadowing of what was to come in Athens.

After looking at that, is the Alabama defense really that much of a relative advantage in this game? Special teams will also matter. Both teams have exciting return men, but Florida’s punt block unit has been one of the big behind-the-scenes development of the season. They plowed through Kentucky and Vanderbilt punt protection with speed and skill that would make Poland nervous. Florida right now is the opposite of what we’ve seen this year from Georgia. Instead of offense and special teams making it tough at times for an already-shaky defense, Florida defense and special teams are making things easier for an already-potent offense.

Alabama has the pieces to win this game, but I have to go with a Florida team that has been consistently excellent over the past two months on offense and defense. The Alabama and Florida defenses are statistically very close over the course of the season, but the gap between the offenses is nowhere near as tight. Florida wins, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the underrated Florida defense make its mark on the game in a very big way.

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