Two of Nation’s Best Defenses to Face Off
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong doesn't try to dodge the issue. He realizes what the Gators have to do to beat Alabama on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game and make it to the BCS national title contest for the third time in four years.
"(Defense) is going to be the whole key," Strong said. "Who can play the best defense will win this game."
Florida leads the nation in total defense (allowing 233.08 yards a game), pass defense (143.17) and scoring defense (9.83 points per contest).
Alabama is third in the country in total defense (233.92) and second in pass defense (156.33) and scoring defense (10.83).
Florida coach Urban Meyer: "I think there is zero chance of winning a championship without a great defense."
Comparing the two defenses is easy. Both are filled with future NFL players, with speed and talent. But UF cornerback Joe Haden, a finalist for the Thorpe Award for the nation's top defensive back, sees something else.
"When you watch Alabama play, it looks like they're playing for each other, too," Haden said. "Like the way we play for each other. We don't just play for individual stats. We don't just play for ourselves."
The Gators' guiding forces on defense, linebackers Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper and Haden, are playing better than ever. All three will be in the NFL next year, unless Haden elects to return for his senior season.
Stamper is the only fifth-year senior starter on defense and has a team-high 71 tackles. Spikes, who has returned four interceptions for touchdowns in the past two seasons, is called the "Tim Tebow of the defense" by teammates.
"I don't think anybody's played any better than Joe," Meyer said of Haden.
The entire starting lineup returns from last year's national championship unit. The only major difference is more depth and experience. A perfect example is Georgia native Omar Hunter, a huge recruit who didn't play last season but has made an impact this year.
"It's going to be a physical game," Hunter said. "It's going to be won or lost in the trenches."
Alabama running back Mark Ingram and his backup, Trent Richardson, will try to pound the ball against the Gators. Florida also likes to control the line of scrimmage on offense and has the SEC's top running attack (averaging 236 yards an outing).
Both teams will try to get a lead, then turn the game over to the defense.
"They were very good on defense last year," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. "They're fantastic this year."
UF's defense shut down 'Bama in the fourth quarter of last year's SEC Championship, enabling Florida to come from 14 points down to win 31-20. The Tide had 323 yards total offense.
Defensive back Javier Arenas, a Tampa native, leads Alabama with 96 tackles. Linebacker Rolando McClain (Butkus Award) and 350-pound defensive lineman Terrence Cody of Fort Myers (Chuck Bednarik Award, for national defensive player of the year), are competing against Spikes for national awards.
"They make a lot of checks," Gators quarterback Tim Tebow said of 'Bama's defense. "When we check, they check, sort of thing, and they get in a lot of different blitzes. And they scheme up a lot of teams to put pressure on the quarterback, to put pressure on the run game."
Crimson Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said the Gators aren't complicated on defense, while Alabama tries to confuse teams.
"You can replicate the looks but it's really difficult to replicate the personnel they have," McElroy said of preparing for Florida.
Arenas said there has been no emphasis on getting ready for the Gators, until this week.
"You can't get to the promised land if you are stumbling over the rocks before you even get there," Arenas said.
Defensive end Carlos Dunlap, second on the Gators with five quarterback sacks, agrees the chance to play Alabama in the SEC title game wasn't a hot topic during the season.
"We've just constantly been focusing on ourselves and what we can do to get better," he said.
Opposing coaches probably lose more sleep thinking about Cody than any of the Tide's superb defensive talent.
"He's maintained his weight a little bit better," Saban said. "His conditioning is better. And I think his understanding and focus are better."
McClain is Saban's quarterback on defense.
"I think he probably affects everybody else on the defensive team as much as anybody that I've ever been around, because this is his third year starting," Saban said. "He has a very good understanding of the system and the scheme."
"In my mind it doesn't get any bigger than this," McClain said. "So I want to go out and play my best game against the best. So I'm just looking forward to playing and showing the world not only what I can do but what this team is capable of."