Legendary college football head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once famously said, “Defense wins championships.”
For the Florida Gators, it could also be what heads a massive turnaround for the once-proud football program.
Last season, Florida stumbled its way to a 4-8 record. Not only did it mark the first time the team has missed out on a bowl game in 23 years, but it also served as the school’s fewest wins since going winless in 1979.
Simply put, 2013 was a travesty.
But before you poke fun at the misfortunes of the Gators, script up condescending PSA’s on scooter use in Gainesville or laugh about how the team could have fielded a football squad with its injury list last season, just be warned. Florida is poised to make you eat those words in 2014.
That’s mainly because, once again, the defense should be good. Really good.
Over the years, that characteristic has been pretty much synonymous with any team that current Florida head coach Will Muschamp has been associated with.
In fact, since his days as defensive coordinator for LSU, the 42-year-old has been spitting out one elite defensive unit after another:
|Will Muschamp Defenses Since 2002|
|Year||Team||PPG Allowed||YPG Allowed|
|2002||LSU (DC/LB)||18.3 (15)||286.8 (8)|
|2003||LSU (DC/LB)||11.0 (1)||252.0 (1)|
|2004||LSU (DC/LB)||17.1 (14)||256.9 (3)|
|2006||Auburn (DC)||13.9 (7)||292.3 (19)|
|2007||Auburn (DC)||16.9 (6)||297.9 (6)|
|2008||Texas (DC/LB)||18.8 (18)||342.0 (51)|
|2009||Texas (DC/LB)||16.7 (12)||251.9 (3)|
|2010||Texas (DC/LB)||23.7 (49)||300.2 (6)|
|2011||Florida (HC)||20.3 (20)||299.5 (8)|
|2012||Florida (HC)||14.5 (5)||286.7 (5)|
|2013||Florida (HC)||21.1 (15)||314.3 (8)|
*Position at each school and national rankings are listed in parenthesis.
Next season Muschamp should be able to continue that trend, as the Gators return eight starters on what was one of the top defenses in the nation.
In 12 games, the team ranked No. 15 in scoring defense (21.1 PPG) and No. 8 in total defense (314.3 YPG). Florida also proved especially difficult to score against, only conceding 26 touchdowns all season.
The team also ranked No. 3 in time of possession. But given that the Gators ranked No. 115 in total offense (316.7 YPG), No. 110 in yards per play (4.79) and No. 107 in first downs per game (17.8), that stat is largely influenced by the play of the defense.
In other words, Florida made quick work on that side of the ball.
More specifically, the team proved nearly impossible to throw the ball against.
The Gators ranked No. 7 against the pass (171.8 YPG) and finished No. 2 in passing touchdowns allowed (nine). Furthermore, the team held six opponents without a passing touchdown and only two managed to throw more than one in a game.
Cornerback and SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year Vernon Hargreaves was a large part in that.
Behind his strong play, opposing receivers found success hard to come by. Even some of the nation's top receivers fell short—Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham (3 REC, 52 YDS, 0 TD) and LSU’s dynamic duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, who failed to find the end zone, only managed six catches and 105 yards combined.
Losing cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy to the NFL will certainly hurt, but 5-star cornerback and 2014 signee Jalen Tabor should go a long way in making up for that loss.
In fact, Florida has quite a bit of talent coming in from its 2014 recruiting class. One that currently ranks No. 10 in the nation, per 247Sports’ football recruiting team rankings.
All three should help patch up a run defense that faltered after several key injuries up front.
After holding opponents to 65.0 rushing yards per game and just three touchdowns over the first five games, Florida coughed up 197.7 rushing yards per game and 14 scores over the final seven. That includes conceding a whopping 429 yards on the ground in a loss to the FCS’s Georgia Southern.
To the Gators’ credit, they lost defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a torn ACL early on. He was a vital part to the line and an overall leader in the unit.
Not to mention, injuries were a common theme for the 2013 season, as Florida saw a total of 21 players—including 11 on defense—miss games due to injuries. Of those players, 10 suffered season-ending injuries.
On the bright side, these injuries opened up more playing time for younger players and reserves. Something that should begin to pay dividends for the team in 2014.
Throw in the defensive prowess of Muschamp and the incoming group of talent, and this will certainly be a defense to keep an eye on.
More importantly, this could be the unit that puts the Gators 2013 woes in the rearview for good.