Rock-solid defenses separate Florida, Alabama from pretenders
Florida and Alabama stand above the rest of the SEC, mainly due to defense
It says here that Alabama, despite being ranked No. 2, is the more dominant team
Nebraska DL Ndamukong Suh is starting to generate talk of a Heisman candidacy
Football Insiders: Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- As the clock wound down on No. 1 Florida's 13-3 win over No. 4 LSU on Saturday night, I stood on the Gators' sideline with several writers, one of whom -- Dave Curtis of the Sporting News -- used an adept basketball analogy to describe the current national landscape.
"You know how in the NCAA tournament you have those years where the Final Four has two No. 1 seeds on one side and a four and a six on the other?" he said. Well, if the Dec. 5 SEC Championship were a national semifinal, Florida and Alabama would be those dueling No. 1 seeds. The latest AP poll confirmed that sentiment Sunday by listing the two conference rivals No. 1 and 2 in the country.
By the end of the day Saturday, it had become abundantly clear the Gators and Crimson Tide stand head and shoulders above the rest of their conference peers. This year's SEC is hardly the ultra-deep league it's been the past few years, where no team was safe from one week to the next. It's more like the SEC of the mid-to-late '90s, when Florida and Tennessee staged an annual two-team race.
Both teams handled their much-anticipated road trips Saturday with relative ease thanks to another set of dominant defensive performances. Alabama rendered formerly ballyhooed Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead utterly helpless in a 22-3 bludgeoning in Oxford. The Gators quieted 93,129 revved-up LSU fans by sacking Jordan Jefferson five times and holding the Tigers to 12 first downs.
Take a look around the league. Who's going to beat these guys? Georgia? South Carolina? Auburn? Tennessee? Not in their current incarnations. Not when Florida and Alabama rank first and second, respectively, on the NCAA's total defense chart.
In Saturday's undercards, Auburn suffered its first defeat in humbling fashion, falling 44-23 to Arkansas. But that paled in comparison to the humiliation Tennessee laid on Georgia in a 45-19 butt-whipping. We knew the Dawgs' defense was subpar, but when Jonathan Crompton shreds you for 310 yards and four touchdowns, you've got problems.
Nearly every team in the SEC is plagued by a common element: They're utterly lacking on one side of the ball. All, that is, except Florida and Alabama.
Viewers expecting Tim Tebow to come back and lead the Gators to 40 points may have been unimpressed by Florida's performance Saturday. Yet despite leading by just one score for much of the second half, the outcome never seemed in doubt. If anything, the Gators did exactly what their coaches had set out to do.
"The game plan going in wasn't to spread it out," Tebow said. "It was that we were going to out-physical them, manage the ball" and let Florida's top-ranked defense take care of the rest.
With relentless running from Jeff Demps (16 carries for 86 yards), Emmanuel Moody (6 for 42) and, once he got his bearings, Tebow (17 for 38), the Gators shortened the game to just 17 combined possessions. They probably should have scored more points -- three drives inside the LSU 33 ended in a missed field goal, failed fourth-down conversion and a Tebow interception -- but the way their defense played, it didn't matter.
"The management of the game was dependent upon how the defense and special teams played, and those two phases were tremendous," Gators coach Urban Meyer said.
If the Gators have a hole, it's their receiving corps. Once again, tight end Aaron Hernandez (6 catches, 70 yards) and receiver Riley Cooper (a 24-yard touchdown) were Tebow's only reliable targets, which is troubling for an offense that constantly utilizes four-receiver sets. Florida's offense is unquestionably one-dimensional right now -- but there's only one team in its league with a defense capable of exploiting it.
That would be Alabama, which, despite what the poll order might say, has been the nation's most dominant team through six games. While it's now clear preseason darling Ole Miss isn't remotely what we expected, the Tide's defense had plenty to do with Snead throwing four interceptions and the Rebels managing just 19 yards in the first half.
"That's about as fine a defensive performance in the first half as I've been around in a while," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who doesn't dish out compliments lightly.
Much like with the Florida-LSU game, the Alabama-Ole Miss outcome was never in doubt once Mark Ingram's 36-yard touchdown run put the Tide up 16-0 at halftime. Much like the Gators, Alabama's offense was hardly overpowering. Previously steady quarterback Greg McElroy (15-of-34, 147 yards) played his first bad game of the season. Based on his season stats to date (60.8 percent completions, nine touchdowns and just one interception), it seems safe to figure it an aberration.
Barring injuries or an unforeseen collapse, there aren't a whole lot of remaining potential potholes on either team's schedule.
Florida's toughest remaining test may actually come next week at home against 3-2 Arkansas, which has posted 40-plus points in four of its five games. Bobby Petrino's team has even flashed some defensive prowess the past two weeks, holding two previously prolific offensive teams (Texas A&M and Auburn) to an average of 21 points.
Then again, the Razorbacks have already had a shot at one of the SEC's pacesetters, and it didn't go particularly well; Alabama throttled Arkansas 35-7 on Sept. 26.
Alabama's next big game figured to comes Nov. 7 against Saban' former team, LSU. But the 5-1 Tigers' offense has been a mess nearly the entire season, which doesn't bode well going against the Tide's defense. The Nov. 28 Iron Bowl at Auburn could return to its former place as a high-stakes showdown, but that's a long ways away.
It may be that, for the first time in several seasons, the nation turns its attention away from the SEC for a while. While the Gators and Crimson Tide presumably continue on their collision course toward Atlanta, we'll be busy checking in on teams like Texas, Virginia Tech and USC, all of whom have critical games in the coming weeks.
You know, the other side of the bracket.
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