Sooners' speedy no-huddle offense will test Florida's young defense
Oklahoma installed a no-huddle after last season's loss in the Fiesta Bowl
The time between plays has limited defenses' ability to change coverages
The pace will test a Florida defense that has relied on its depth this season
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson was asked Saturday to name what he believes to be the greatest modern college football offenses.
"I thought that  Penn State team with Ki-Jana [Carter], that was one of the first teams that really lit it up," he said. "Recently, I thought USC, with [Matt] Leinart and Reggie [Bush] and those guys were pretty deep."
With the exception of Heisman winner Sam Bradford, the 2008 Sooners don't boast the same kind of star power as those unforgettable offenses, but statistically, they've accomplished all sorts of feats -- a Division I-A record 702 points, five straight 60-point games, a 4,000-yard passer (Bradford) and two 1,000-yard rushers (Chris Brown and the injured DeMarco Murray) -- no team in history has achieved.
It would be presumptuous to start throwing around "greatest" and "best-ever" tags about 12-1 Oklahoma's offense prior to its toughest test of the season Thursday night against 12-1 Florida, but there's little question these Sooners have produced one of the most prolific attacks in recent memory. For that, you can attribute a bevy of talent, an experienced line -- and one incredibly effective wrinkle.
At the end of last season, which ended in a disappointing Fiesta Bowl loss to West Virginia, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops instructed Wilson to convert the Sooners into a no-huddle team. Wilson had installed similar offenses at Miami (Ohio) in the early '90s and Northwestern in 2000-01.
While OU is hardly the first team to run the no-huddle -- seemingly half the teams in the Big 12 do it as well -- rarely has a team played at such a fast tempo week in and week out, and been as effective doing it. The Sooners ran a national-best 1,036 plays -- nearly 80 per contest - while ranking just 72nd nationally in time of possession (29:46 per game). That means OU, on average, completed a new play every 22.4 seconds -- and that's with the running 40-second clock between plays that the NCAA instituted this season.
Florida players say that nearly every game tape they've watched of the Sooners' opponents this season invariably features a few Keystone Cops moments.
"When we watch the film, they don't show the in-between parts, they just show the plays," said Gators linebacker Ryan Stamper. "As soon as you get to the next [play], you see people on the defense running everywhere -- and then they call 'hike'. And it's not just one team they did it on. Almost every team we watched was not lined up right a couple of times."
While the primary purpose of the no-huddle is to keep opposing defenses off-balance, it's provided no shortage of other benefits for the Sooners.
First, there's the simple mathematics of it. The more plays you can run, the more points you're capable of scoring.
Secondly, the shortened span between plays makes it harder for opposing defenses to disguise their coverages. Oftentimes, the Sooners snap the ball so quickly, there's simply no time for a safety to creep up or a linebacker to shift gaps.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Oklahoma's versatile personnel gives them a decided advantage in that they can run numerous different formations with the players they have on the field -- but in most cases the defense doesn't have time to make corresponding substitutions.
This is of particular concern to Florida's young defense, which has relied heavily on depth and substitutions throughout the season, rotating as many as eight defensive linemen in a game.
"I like to roll my guys -- I've been doing it all season," said Gators defensive line coach Dan McCarney. "They limit that because of how fast they get on the ball. You're going to have to do it between series. You're going to have do it when there's a timeout or when the ball goes out of bounds. But in the middle, you almost cannot substitute."
"The guys know that," said Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. "They're going to have to stay in the game. You can't get tired. You're just going to have to keep playing."
The Gators have tried their best to simulate Oklahoma's tempo in practice, and, in some cases, made it even faster than necessary. In one drill, Florida's scout-team offense will run a play -- only to have an entirely different scout team come on to the field and immediately run the next play. About 10 seconds elapse between plays.
"We've been trying to practice it with the guys where we get up on the ball real quick and snap it when they're not aware of it," said Strong, "and we've had problems in practice where the cornerbacks aren't lined up on the same side. But we do it just because when it happens to them, they won't panic. Just get lined up, and if it does happen, just run to the football."
If and when the Gators do get lined up, priority No. 1 will be getting pressure on Bradford. "We just need to get to Sam Bradford and get in his head," said Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. That's no small chore, however, considering the Sooners have allowed just 11 sacks all season despite attempting 476 passes.
"When they throw the ball, it looks like a seven-on-seven drill," said McCarney.
Two years ago, in another BCS Championship Game, Strong's defense held a previously potent Ohio State offense to just 82 total yards in a 41-14 blowout. The Gators suffocated Buckeyes QB Troy Smith with the relentless pressure caused by speedy defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, both of them future first-rounders.
This year's Florida D is not known as much for its pass-rush (Carlos Dunlap leads the team with nine sacks; Cunningham has six) but does boast the nation's No. 2 pass efficiency defense, limiting opposing passers to just 52.1 percent completions and 10 touchdowns while notching 24 interceptions.
That's in sharp contrast to Bradford, the nation's most efficient passer, who's completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 48 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Credit much of that to Bradford's uncanny accuracy ("He can win a bunch of teddy bears at the fair," joked Wilson) but also the pace of Oklahoma's offense. Countless times, the Sooners have caught a defense in the wrong alignment, with Bradford often throwing quickly to one of his receivers who then break long runs.
Florida's biggest defensive strength all season has been the ability of defensive backs like Ahmad Black, Major Wright, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins to jump pass-routes and fly to the ball.
"We have to get lined up, and once we get lined up, we have to tackle," said Strong. "They're going to make their throws, but the key thing is to not allow the yards after catch."
If you've watched any Oklahoma games this season, you've seen no shortage of plays where Bradford stands untouched in the pocket and unleashes a deep ball to a seemingly uncovered receiver. What you don't often see, while ABC or ESPN is showing replays or graphics, are those key moments prior to the play when the defense is trying to get itself lined up.
If Florida succeeds in avoiding those type of pre-snap mistakes, or simply wearing down, due to the Sooners' lightning-fast tempo, they have no shortage of athletes to bring pressure on Bradford or shut down his receivers.
If they don't?
"We're going to be in a lot of trouble," said Strong.