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Posted: Thursday January 8, 2009 10:07AM; Updated: Thursday January 8, 2009 3:09PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Florida will roll after weathering an opening storm from Oklahoma

Story Highlights

The Gators have a huge advantage on the defensive end

Florida will benefit greatly from the return of do-everything WR Percy Harvin

After failing to win the Heisman, Tim Tebow will have plenty of motivation

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Tim Tebow
It's tough to bet against Florida QB Tim Tebow, one of the biggest gamers in recent history.
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Click here for five reasons why Oklahoma will win.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It would be an impressive feat for any team to reach the national championship game twice in three seasons. What makes Florida's accomplishment particularly unique, however, is that the Gators' have gone through a near complete turnover in their personnel (at least among those who actually play) from the 2006 team that beat Ohio State. They've also taken on an entirely different identity.

The 2006 Gators suffocated teams with a powerful, veteran front four on defense. The 2008 Gators rely on the blazing speed and instinct of their linebackers and defensive backs. The 2006 Gators relied primarily on the passing ability of senior QB Chris Leak and a deep stable of receivers. The 2008 Gators rely on a never-ending barrage of runners (including QB Tim Tebow) but it doesn't hurt to have the nation's fourth-ranked passer.

Realistically, Florida returned to the national title game a year earlier than should have been expected for a team that lists 14 freshman and sophomores on its defensive two-deep and whose top two tailbacks are freshmen as well. But the Gators made it.

Here are five reasons why Florida will beat Oklahoma:

1) It's the defense, stupid. My boss sometimes gets on me for using clichés -- so I'll let Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes do it for me. "Offense sells tickets," said Spikes. "Defense wins championships." He's right: Nine of the 10 BCS champions to date fielded a top 10 scoring defense. Florida's ranks fourth (12.8 points per game). Oklahoma's ranks 58th (24.5 ppg).

The Gators' defense might not be quite as dominant as the 2006 team, but they're still pretty darn good (seventh nationally in total defense) -- and a whole lot better than most of the defenses Oklahoma has faced. If you've been watching the bowl games, you may have noticed most of the Big 12 teams' scores have gone down considerably upon facing outside competition. And the only league team whose defense truly shined was Texas -- the one team to beat the Sooners.

The key to beating Oklahoma is acclimating to its no-huddle tempo as quickly as possible and surviving its inevitable, early onslaught. TCU, which boasts the nation's top-ranked defense statistically (217.8 yards per game allowed), gave up three first-quarter touchdowns (all of them at least 24 yards) in their Sept. 27 game in Norman, but once the Horned Frogs settled down, they allowed just two scores the rest of the way while producing four of the 11 sacks allowed by the Sooners this season. Texas looked lost early but kept the score close, and disrupted two key late-game drives by twice sacking Sam Bradford.

"[TCU was] playing its tails off, and even the coach, Gary Patterson, made a comment that he screwed it up because he was [still] talking when the play was snapped," said Florida coach Urban Meyer. "We have to get lined up and get ready to go."

Expect Florida, much like Texas, to shut down OU's running game (which is missing star DeMarco Murray), but struggle against the pass early before adjusting to the pace. Once they do, Gators pass-rushers Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap will start to get pressure on Bradford, which he doesn't see too often. If they can get him to make even a couple of mistakes -- watch out. In a 49-10 win over Georgia on Nov. 1, DBs Joe Haden and Ahmad Black returned a pair of Matthew Stafford interceptions for a combined 152 yards.

"Every quarterback, once you get pressure on him, knock him down, sack him a couple times, it will always mess up their rotation of how they're throwing the ball," said Cunningham. "So we need to just get to Sam Bradford and get in his head."

2) Speed kills. When Meyer arrived in Gainesville four years ago, he pledged to make Florida "the fastest team in America." It appears he's succeeded. At least 10 of Florida's regular contributors run a 4.4 or better in the 40, including a handful -- WR Percy Harvin, RBs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps -- in the low-4.3 range.

But it's not just the obvious spots -- like running back and receiver -- where Florida's speed shines through. "They're fast at every position," said Oklahoma assistant head coach Bobby Jack Wright. "It's not just their speed, it's their speed all over the field." That includes linemen, linebackers and safeties that move faster than one might normally expect of their position.

Pure speed alone does not win you football games -- if it did, Florida would not have lost four games a year ago. Last year's team relied heavily on extremely inexperienced players; this year, those same guys know what they're doing -- and it shows.

"We have one of the fastest defenses [in the country]," Haden said. "Football speed is different than 40 speed. Guys like Brandon Spikes, [Ryan] Stamper, Dustin Doe, Major [Wright], Ahmad [Black] -- they know how to get to the ball. When you know what you're doing, you play that much faster."

Speed has become a bigger and bigger difference-maker in college football with each passing year, due to the preponderance of the spread offense and the need for speedy defenders to counteract it. Look back through the recent annals and nearly every national champion -- be it LSU, Florida, USC or Miami -- has been the team with the most speed.

It's not that Oklahoma is slow; Florida is just faster.

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