(SCROLL TO BOTTOM FOR UPDATE)
Flashback to fall 2007. It's 3rd-and-12 in a close game. Tim Tebow and the dynamic Florida offense are on the sideline.
If you're a Florida Gator fan, you're as nervous as Dick Cheney's hunting partner.
You're nervous because you know that time after time, the 2007 Florida Gators allowed teams to steal momentum by converting third downs. No matter the yardage to be gained, the opponent somehow managed to reach the first down marker.
Not surprisingly, Florida was ranked 75th nationally in third down defense at 41.2 percent.
On the other side of the ball, Florida was the exact opposite. The Tebow-led offense was not only the best third down team in the country at 53.4 percent, it also faced the fewest third downs (146) of any team in the country.
Well, for starters it means that Florida's third down defense was awful in 2007. On the other hand, the offense's stats were incredible. Not only was the offense the best on third down, it also faced the fewest number of third downs of any FBS team.
The stats show that while the UF defense has room for improvement, the offense managed to move the ball with incredible efficiency.
At least three of the Gators' four losses were due to defensive ineptitude on third down. Unlike the 2006 title defense, the 2007 could not come through with the big plays.
What are the implications?
If the Gators have any chance at winning the SEC, the third down defense must improve. We're not talking about a vast improvement though.
Some of the best defenses in the nation (LSU at 35.2 percent, tOSU at 33.3 percent, and Georgia at 34.6 percent, for example) were only several percentage points better than the Gators. The difference amounts to one or two stops more per game.
There you have it. If the Gators offense continues its success from last season and the defense can be just a little more clutch, you could very well see Florida playing in Atlanta.
UPDATE: A 2007 Loss-by-loss Breakdown
To further illustrate the importance of 3rd down defense, I have decided to update this article with a breakdown of the Gators' losses during the 2007 season. The Gators lost four (4) games last season and 3rd (and 4th) down defense was a large reason for these losses. Here are the indisputable facts:
1. Loss to Auburn 20-17- This was a very low scoring game for Florida (which averaged 42.5 ppg in 2007). Despite the uncharacteristically low scoring, the Gators 3rd and 4th down defense was a big factor in the outcome of this game.
Auburn converted only 6 of 14 third downs (almost 43%). At first blush, this seems like an average performance (indeed, their 3rd down defensive average was 41.2%) from the Gators defense, but two factors illuminate the picture. First, Auburn was not an offensive powerhouse in 2007. Second, Auburn was 1 of 1 on fourth down. That means that Auburn completed 7 of 15 (46.7 %) third and fourth downs.
The Gators poor third and fourth down defense against Auburn kept the Gators high powered offense off the field and ultimately cost them the game.
2. Loss to LSU 28-24 - Anyone who watched this game knows that the Florida defense just could not get off the field. Florida had several opportunities to win this game and just blew it because the defense allowed LSU to convert in every critical situation.
The numbers are in-line with your memory of this game. Florida allowed LSU to convert almost 50% of their 3rd downs (8 of 17) and ALL of their 4th downs (5 of 5). If Florida's defense could have made just one 4th down stop, Florida could have left Baton Rouge with a win.
3. Loss to Georgia 42-30 - One word: PITIFUL. Georgia was 10 of 13 (77 %) on third down in this game. If Florida's 3rd down defense had been just average in this game, Florida may have easily won despite Tebow's shoulder injury.
10 of 13 is a very dark cloud, but there is a silver lining. It is unlikely that Georgia will go 77% on third down against the Gators in two straight seasons. In fact, the 2007 Florida-Georgia game was Georgia's performance on 3rd down all season.
4. Loss to Michigan 41-35 - Again, Florida's defense could not get off the field when it mattered. Michigan converted 10 of 15 (67%) third downs. In such a close game, Florida really could have used one more defensive stop.