Back on August 4 I published an article titled "Florida Football, Muschamp's Gators May Have Best Defense in SEC in 2012." In it I explained the changes I saw with the Florida Gators and how those changes may cause the defense to improve dramatically over 2011.
In general, most Florida fans who commented seemed to rate the Gator defense at around No. 3 or No. 4 in the SEC at the time.
Now, three games into the season, I hope to revisit some of the article's contents. In addition, I want to add some of the good nuggets of information we received from fans in response to the article.
Using all of this as source material, I will compare the 2012 defense to the 2011 unit and see if it is improving. In addition, I want to get a good number of responses again—just like the August 4 article—in hopes of one more comparison around the time of the Georgia game.
Previously I mentioned that Florida finished at No. 8 in 2011 for total defense in the NCAA Rankings. After three games in 2012, they rank No. 35. At this point in the season that isn't anything to be concerned about. By the end of the season the rankings will work themselves out. I only mention it here because it was pointed out in the original article.
What is important to note is the average rushing numbers the defense is allowing so far. In the first three games, the Gators have allowed an average of 106 yards rushing per game.
This is down from the 133-per-game average of 2011 and right in line with their averages from the '08 and '09 seasons.
It's also noteworthy that the Tennessee team they held to 83 total rushing yards on Saturday night is not the same inept running team as 2011. The Vols came into the 2012 contest averaging 187 yards per game rushing.
The Gators held Texas A&M to 134 yards rushing—60 yards came on quarterback scrambles by redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and only 74 yards came from their running backs. To put that in perspective, the same A&M team ran for 225 yards at SMU the next game.
In Florida's season opener, Bowling Green ran for 101 total yards. They have rushed for another 225 yards in two games since.
Up next is Kentucky, a team that managed to rush for 134 yards against Florida in Lexington last season. Kentucky is 1-2 on the year and their single quality opponent was Louisville.
Louisville beat Kentucky 32-14, allowing the Wildcats 93 total rush yards gained. Of that total, only 46 yards came before Louisville was up 32-14 in the second half. In short, Kentucky is not a very good team. Don't expect them to make a huge dent in the Florida run defense.
Most of the comments received from Florida fans—and a few others—agreed Florida should finish this year in the top 3 defenses in the SEC, but few felt they will end on top.
The most commonly mentioned opportunities to improve were:
Toughness, durability to go hard for four quarters, secondary pass protection and improving pressure from the down linemen and linebackers. Some also focused on the offense helping these guys out by moving the ball and putting points on the board.
Those are five different items the fan base felt needed improvement back in early August. By fixing these things, the fans who commented feel the Gators' defense could compete with anybody.
Where are the Gators on these items?
I think the extra difficult offseason conditioning program initiated by head coach Will Muschamp after last year has paid dividends already. The second half of the Texas A&M game, as well as the final 18 minutes of the Tennessee game, showed the Gators physically dominating two good teams.
In the case of UT, the Vols seemed to hold out longer than A&M. That is likely the result of the special conditioning program head coach Derek Dooley initiated during the offseason. Regardless, the toughness and durability issues of 2011 appear to have been addressed.
Florida pressured UT, A&M and Bowling Green quarterbacks continuously throughout the games. What issues they had in getting pressure on the quarterbacks appears to be taken care of, as well, based on those performances.
The secondary did a very good job against Tennessee in coverage, which giving the rushers just enough time to keep Tennessee quarterback, Tyler Bray uncomfortable in the pocket.
He still zipped some sharp passes into well-covered receivers on occasion, but he also threw some duds, as well as his first two interceptions of the year.
The only glaring, correctable issue in pass coverage also applies across the board to this team—they create too many penalties!
Also, Florida fans, if you disagree with any of those pass interference or defensive holding calls in the Tennessee game, you need to go back and watch the tape. I watched the game twice and it was the same both times.
The defensive backs were grabbing, holding arms and face masks in every situation that was flagged. I did not see a single call that should not have been made.
If the Gators don't get the penalty thing under control, it is going to cost them a game soon enough—and if it's a conference game it may cost them a title.
The rules favor the receiver, that's just the way it is. Sometimes when you are guarding a receiver, you have to do your best and if they make the catch, they make it.
When you grab their arm, face mask or jersey, you relieve them of their duty. When that flag comes out they win, every time. Sometimes, if you make them do their part, they will miss the catch or drop the ball.
Florida defensive backs are giving receivers easy yards too often on penalty calls.
On the offensive side, the Gators are improving each week. Jeff Driskel has gotten increasingly comfortable with running the offense since he was made the starting quarterback, and the Florida run game is much improved.
So, the offensive help that the defense needed is starting to show up.
The Florida defense isn't No. 1 in the SEC at this point and it may not get there. Still, you have to like the obvious improvements over last season.
At this point in 2012 there is more reason for confidence in this defensive group and the Gators seem more likely to become a great defensive team than it did when I published my original article on August 4.