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Posted: Friday January 9, 2009 3:45AM; Updated: Friday January 9, 2009 9:52AM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Once again, Strong's impressive D guides Florida to BCS title (cont.)

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Florida's defense held Oklahoma 40 points below its regular-season average.
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It's hard to believe this is the same exact core of players that ended its season a year ago with a 41-35 Capital One Bowl loss to Michigan and looked barely improved in a then-crushing 31-30 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27.

In the 10 games since, they allowed 13.1 points per game -- about what the Sooners, which came in averaging 54, managed Thursday night.

"The best thing that ever happened to us was the way we got beat in that Michigan game," said Strong. "These guys got beat on from January to August -- that you're not a good enough defense, that we're not going to be able to win with this defense. Every single game we got better."

It's not as if Oklahoma didn't move the ball against the Gators. On one first-half drive, they marched 65 yards in 2:13 to score their first touchdown. But on two other occasions, they drove inside the Florida 10-yard line and came away with zero points.

On consecutive plays from the Gators' one-yard-line midway through the second quarter, Florida defenders surged into the backfield to stop running back Chris Brown (who finished with 110 yards on 22 carries while starting in place of the injured DeMarco Murray). And with just 10 seconds left in the half, the Sooners lined up at the Gators' six-yard-line. Bradford forced a throw to Manuel Johnson in front of the end zone, despite the fact he was blanketed by Florida defenders. The ball popped out of his hands, as well as those of two other Gators, before winding up as an interception for Florida safety Major Wright.

Oklahoma produced another one of its patented, quick-strike touchdown drives (eight plays, 77 yards in 2:36) early in the fourth quarter, but for the most part, the Sooners' no-huddle attack did little to faze the Gators. On most plays, upon realizing that Florida had lined up in time, Bradford would step back and look to the sideline for a play-call.

"We had a whole month to prepare," said Defensive MVP Carlos Dunlap. "Coach Meyer constantly had the whole defense running no-huddle the whole practice, running faster than Oklahoma actually ran it."

Of course, there will be those who watched Thursday night's game that will remain unconvinced. They'll point out that 12-1 Texas beat Oklahoma by the same, 10-point margin. They'll point out that 12-1 USC's defense is ranked even higher than Florida's, and is more experienced at that. And of course, they'll point out that 13-0 Utah never lost to Ole Miss.

Unfortunately, we cannot conclusively say that the Florida Gators were the best team in the country in 2008. However, after covering both the Rose Bowl and this title game, I feel pretty confident in saying there's only one other team in the country that could have held Oklahoma's offense to 14 points Thursday night. It's the team that plays in Los Angeles.

In a perfect world, we'd get to see Florida and USC square off next week. In the system we have, we can only hope instead that perhaps they meet up next year in Pasadena. It's an entirely realistic possibility considering the Gators' program is quickly starting to resemble Pete Carroll's Trojans in terms of the sheer amount of talent at their disposal.

"I think USC was kind of the point school for a while, and you admired the way they reloaded their team [every year]," said Meyer, now the nation's first coach to own two BCS titles. "I made a comment to our administration, if we can find a way to put a really good recruiting class together -- [we're] getting close."

Asked after which victory was sweeter, Ohio State (whom the Gators held to 82 total yards) or Oklahoma, defensive coordinator Strong didn't hesitate. "This one," he said. "Because in 2006, I knew we were the more talented team. This defense was younger. Not a single senior."

That last statement alone is the biggest testament of all to the budding juggernaut in Gainesville. Nearly every defensive player that stepped on the field for the Gators on Thursday has been in the program for three seasons or less, most of them playing their freshman or sophomore season. They are, in theory, far too inexperienced to shut down an offense of Oklahoma's caliber.

The upshot of that, as scary as it may sound, is that Florida could well return its entire defense next season. (Strong said afterward he expects Spikes, the lone potential draft entry, to come back). The vibe inside the Florida locker room Thursday night wasn't that of a team that just completed a journey; the Gators realize they're in the midst of accomplishing something truly special.

As if two national titles in three years isn't enough, Florida, provided Tebow returns, will be heavily favored next season to become the first team since Nebraska in 1994-97 to win three out of four.

"We have to be on all points next year," Meyer said. "But when you win national championships -- the whole country saw that tonight. You've got to be out of your mind ... you're out of your freaking mind if you don't want to play for the Gators."

If you happen to be a Heisman-winning quarterback, you've got to be out of your mind to want to face the Gators.

 
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