NCAA FB

Dominant defenses lead nation's top teams

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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What a difference a year makes. The 2008 college football season was all about the spread offense, big name quarterbacks and jaw dropping offensive numbers. Yes, offense was king in '08, a season that saw an offense score the most points in college football history (Oklahoma), a quarterback break the NCAA's single season completion percentage record (Texas's Colt McCoy) — and not win the Heisman — and an unheard of 10 FBS teams average more than 40 points per game. After a summer of endless literature in just about every publication on "Why No One Can Stop the Spread," an onslaught of media coverage on the dozens of returning established quarterbacks set for big seasons, and expectations for an encore to '08's weekly offensive fireworks show — the 2009 college football season has been about one thing and one thing only: defense. If you're a fan of aerial displays and gaudy fantasy football statistics, the first six weeks of college football haven't been for you. They've been stingy. They've been ugly. They've been pretty much everything '08 wasn't. Florida, Alabama, and Texas — the nation's top three ranked teams in this week's AP Top 25 poll — each boast defenses ranked in the top four nationally in Total D. Florida is giving up a mind-blowing 6.4 points per game and surrendering just 202.6 yards per game on the year. Coming into Saturday's clash with LSU, the major storyline was whether or not quarterback Tim Tebow would play. In the end, it probably was of little consequence. Sure, Tebow made some key plays and his presence on the field is invaluable, but with the way defensive coordinator Charlie Strong's D performed in Baton Rouge on Saturday evening ... any one of the hundreds of Gators fans wearing a No. 15 Tebow jersey in the stands could have played QB and given UF a chance to win. It's nothing new for the Gators defense. They've suffocated opponents all year. The Gators beat LSU by 10 on Saturday night, but as was the case in the Gators' 23-13 victory over Tennessee in September, the margin of victory didn't do the completely one-sided game much justice. Even with a raucous LSU crowd, some offensive miscues on fourth down, and a less than perfect Tebow — the Gators manhandled the Tigers. The Gators took an early 3-point lead, never surrendered it, and dominated the time of possession game en route to a relatively easy 13-3 win. LSU's offense, loaded with playmakers at running back, tight end and receiver, never once threatened in the second half. They looked inept from start to finish, managing just 162 yards for the game. LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson completed just one pass for more than 20 yards, while LSU's much publicized downfield receiving duo of Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver combined for just 58 yards on 6 catches. The Tigers' 3 points were the least LSU had scored at home since a 31-0 loss to Alabama in 2002. "Those guys have a pretty good defense," LaFell said afterwards. "We had a ton of chances, then we would get a mistake ... Too many mistakes." It's no coincidence that every team that's played Florida this season has ended up making "too many mistakes." The defense is that good. Senior linebacker Brandon Spikes is the Tim Tebow of the unit — a four-year regular, a sure-fire All-American, and the unquestioned leader of the best defense in the nation. In Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham, the Gators have two future NFL first day picks at defensive end. The entire starting defensive backfield — Will Hill, Ahmad Black, Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins — should be playing on Sundays down the road. This is an NFL defense. And they're not alone. For as impressive as Florida's D was on Saturday, Alabama's might have been even better. In their 22-3 win over Ole Miss in Oxford, Nick Saban's Tide made the opposing offense look like it was some rag tag junior varsity team. Preseason Heisman candidate Jevan Snead is not a bad quarterback. The Tide made him looked lost, confused and horrendous. Snead was picked off four times on the afternoon and completed just 11 of 34 passes for a paltry 140 yards. At halftime, he'd completed just 2 of 12 passes for 14 yards. "We had a couple of new wrinkles for the game and I think he knew what we were doing," Alabama linebacker Cory Reamer said afterwards. "But our defensive line was in his face. And that's tough for any quarterback." Snead was knocked down or pressured just about every time he dropped back. Again, nothing new. In six games, Alabama's given up the second-least yards per game in the nation. "This is the fastest defense if you went from 1-11 (players)," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said afterward. "From corners to safeties to linebackers to defensive linemen, this is the best I've seen." Linebacker Rolando McClain, defensive tackle Terrence Cody and cornerback Javier Arenas are all considered future top 20 NFL draft picks. With linebacker Dont'a Hightower sidelined with an injury the past two weeks, Reamer, a player primarily used on special teams the past few years, has emerged as yet another bona fide defensive star. In Oxford on Saturday, Reamer blocked a punt, recovered a fumble, made four tackles and caused absolute havoc from start to finish from the linebacker spot. "For a guy that was a safety (early in his career), and to be honest I didn't know if he'd ever play here, he's played a lot of good football for us over the last two years and especially now that his role has increased he has elevated his game tremendously," Saban said of Reamer on Saturday. LSU and Ole Miss each boasted school record-breaking attendance numbers on Saturday. Both crowds booed their respective home team offenses at some point during the two games. While Alabama and Florida have spent the season sucking high-powered SEC offenses out of their home buildings down south, the Texas defense has been lights out this year, as well. The Longhorns are fourth in the nation in total defense, having given up just 241 rushing yards through five games. The D showed its mettle Saturday vs. Colorado. After giving up an early touchdown, Texas held the Buffaloes' on their next 12 offensive series. The Colorado offense netted just 61 yards on its final 49 plays. With the Longhorns' faithful scratching their heads over a nonexistent running game, Will Muschamp's D took care of business.
Yet again, nothing new. Muschamp's unit has been lock-down all year. Texas held UTEP to 55 total yards of offense two weeks ago. The very same UTEP offense then put up 581 yards and 58 points a week later in an upset over nationally ranked Houston. Nationwide, overall scoring and offensive numbers are down in '09, and the Heisman race — one that was supposed to feature two past champions, last year's runner up and a Pac-10 running back expected to break conference records — is an absolute crapshoot six weeks into the year. Though McCoy and Tebow are certainly in the conversation, Jimmy Clausen, the quarterback of the nation's 25th ranked team, and a Big East quarterback, Cincinnati's Tony Pike, are considered by many to be the frontrunners thus far. Perhaps the Butkus Award is the real postseason award "race" worth following this season. McClain and Spikes are each putting together dominant individual performances every week. Toss Texas defensive maestro Sergio Kindle in there and you have 2009's version of 2008's Tebow, McCoy and Bradford superstar trio. Grind it out 13-3 victories under the Baton Rouge sky and 22-3 slugfests in the Mississippi late afternoon mist might not make for the sexiest of Saturday football treats, but that's been the name of the game in '09. TV ratings and fantasy football stats be damned, it's been all about the D this year. The top three teams in the nation boast three of the most dominant defenses we've seen in recent years. As for their offenses? Eh, who cares? Offense was so 2008.
Tagged: Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, LSU, UTEP, Notre Dame, Colorado, Texas, Cincinnati, Houston

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