FLORIDA GATORS PREVIEW
The sign posted inside the locker room area is a not-so-subtle reminder that the expectations for the Florida defense haven't diminished simply because there's another national championship trophy in the building:
• Give up 16 points or fewer
• Shutout in the fourth quarter
• Two or fewer big plays per game
• Hold opponent under 35 percent on third-down conversions
Better than before has been the defense's mantra since beating Oklahoma 24-14 on Jan. 8 in Miami.
Led by senior linebacker Brandon Spikes, Florida returns all 11 defensive starters and its top reserves from a unit that ranked No. 4 in the nation in scoring (12.9 points per game), No. 1 in interceptions (26) and No. 3 in forced turnovers (35).
But the drive to succeed isn't fueled by what hangs on the wall, but what the Gators defense hopes will become its legacy.
"We are trying to be one of the best defenses in history," junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "We have all these talented athletes coming back, and there are so many who are the best in the country at what they do. So there's no reason why we shouldn't be the best when we put everybody together."
In 26 years of coaching, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has seen his share of talented players. Yet even he senses something special about this defense.
As long as it doesn't get complacent.
"I'll be really disappointed if this defense is not better than it was last year," he said. "With what we have coming back, we all will be disappointed. And our guys understand that. I think our team understands that, and they know what the expectations are.
"Even though we have them all back, we still have to work to get better each day. It's going to be up to them to go out each week and show that we can be a dominating defense."
There is plenty of room for improvement, Strong said.
Florida was 15th in the nation against the run (105.4 per game) and No. 20 against the pass (179.9) but No. 9 in total defense (285.3).
"Last year, we were a good defense, not a great defense," junior safety Ahmad Black said. "A lot of teams drove the ball on us. We just, somehow, came up with the plays in the red zone to keep them off the board. We've got to dominate the games and keep them out of the red zone, period."
The first-team defense allowed just six touchdowns over its final eight games and blocked a school-record nine kicks.
"I think their defense, if they play the way they did last year and show the maturity of another year, I think they have a chance, along with Alabama and Oklahoma possibly, to be three of the top defenses in the country," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.
"I think their defense can be dominant. You're talking about a defense that in '07 allowed about 25 a game. And last year, it was cut in half. I think in their own minds, based on the way they played last year, they've become a dominant unit. And now they are a year older."
And with that maturity comes more complex schemes.
"They have installed some new stuff. We have more stuff than we've ever had on defense," coach Urban Meyer said. "The reason for that complexity is we have a lot of veterans; more looks, more personnel groupings and different pressures."
Florida returns 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow at quarterback, but the offense must replace key players, including Percy Harvin and Louis Murphy. There is an unknown element there.
Not so for the defense. And it relishes the opportunity to prove it can make the leap from good to great.
"We have a chance to rewrite history and be remembered forever, to go down as one of the greatest teams ever and be remembered forever as a champion," Spikes said. "But we have to take it one game at a time and just play the way we know we can play."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.