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December 2, 2009

Tide, Gators bring defense to a new level

MORE: Inside look: Scouting reports for the big three

The highly anticipated SEC championship game showdown between Florida and Alabama won't merely determine which school has the best team in the conference.

It also should measure which of the two schools has the nation's top defense. Whichever defense prevails Saturday at the Georgia Dome should earn a ticket to the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif.

"We've been proving we've been the best defense since my sophomore year last year, when we were doing it week in and week out," Florida junior cornerback Joe Haden said. "And this year we've been doing it week in and week out.

"It's going to be two great defenses."

That might be an understatement.

Florida leads the nation in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense and ranks second in pass efficiency defense and eighth in run defense. Alabama leads the nation in pass efficiency defense and ranks second in scoring defense and run defense, third in total defense and fifth in pass defense.

Each team has a probable first-round pick on the defensive line (Florida end Carlos Dunlap and Alabama tackle Terrence Cody), an All-America candidate at linebacker (Florida's Brandon Spikes and Alabama's Rolando McClain) and an All-America candidate in the secondary (Florida's Joe Haden and Alabama's Javier Arenas). Dunlap, though, was arrested early Tuesday morning and charged with driving under the influence, and has been suspended for Saturday's game. Dunlap's absence won't necessarily decimate the Gators' pass rush: Florida also features senior end Jermaine Cunningham, who has recorded seven sacks this season to match Dunlap's total.

The defenses have delivered similar results with similar lineups, though they don't necessarily have similar approaches.

"As far as schematics, they're not nearly as confusing as our defense, I feel," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "But as far as speed and flat-out talent, they're very, very similar. ... As far as what our defense does and their defense does, they're pretty different. [Alabama's] tries to confuse you as opposed to trying to line up and beat you with talent."

McElroy, a first-year starter, wasn't intending to criticize the Gators; he just was noting the difficulty of preparing to face a defense with so much star power.

Tale of the tape
Alabama and Florida boast two of the nation's top defenses. Here's a look at where each team ranks nationally in major defensive categories. Averages or totals are in parentheses. A "t" indicates a tie.
CategoryAlabamaFlorida
Yards per game3rd (233.1 ypg)1st (233.9 ypg)
Points per game2nd (10.8 ppg) 1st (9.8 ppg)
Run defense2nd (77.1 ypg)8th (89.9 ypg)
Pass defense5th (156.8 ypg)1st (143.2 ypg)
Pass efficiency defense1st (85.88 pts.)2nd (88.07 pts)
InterceptionsT-7th (19)T-4th (20)
Turnover margin5th (plus-15)17th (plus-8)
3rd-down conversion defense5th (28.9%)2nd (26.2%)
"What they do is not necessarily overly complicated," McElroy said. "But what they do have, they have a lot of tremendous talent. Obviously it's tough to prepare for in the sense that you can replicate the looks, but it's difficult to replicate the personnel they have."

That should come as no surprise. Florida returned its entire first- and second-team defense from last year's national championship team, so the Gators figured to suffocate opposing offenses. No team has scored more than 20 points on Florida all season, and as with Alabama, the Gators held seven opponents to 10 or fewer points this season.

Alabama, which returned eight starters on defense, is perhaps the only team in the nation that can match Florida's personnel on that side of the ball. The depth charts are strikingly similar.

It starts in the middle with arguably the nation's two best linebackers.

Spikes has "only" 53 tackles - down from 93 last season - but he remains a likely first-round pick and one of the nation's top big-play threats. McClain has collected 96 tackles - 32 more than any of his teammates - while making the calls and checks for Alabama's defense.

"In my mind, I consider myself to be a pretty good linebacker," McClain said. "If you want to be considered as one of the great linebackers, you have to show up in big games. In my mind, it doesn't get any bigger than this, so I want to go out and play my best game against the best."

Each team also has one of the nation's best defensive backs.

A dynamic young secondary that featured Haden, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and safeties Ahmad Black and Major Wright helped Florida tie for the NCAA lead with 26 interceptions last season. The Gators returned all four this season, but Haden separated himself from the pack with a breakthrough junior season.

Haden has a team-high four interceptions - the Gators have 20 as a team - and ranks second on the team with 59 tackles. Not bad for a former quarterback who primarily focused on offense at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Md. If he chooses to turn pro after this season, Haden likely will get taken in the first round.

"He's got a [Tim] Tebow -type work ethic," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "So it doesn't surprise me that he's been doing this for this long. He did shock us when we first got him. We thought he could be a very good offensive player, but he comes in and starts three years at corner [and] played at a high level.

"Once you get to see the way he works, he's blessed and has a lot of freakish ability. Great worker, one of the best workers I've ever been around."

Arenas has been an equally big surprise for Alabama. Although he mainly was known before this season as one of the nation's top punt returners, Arenas has emerged as a stalwart defensive performer. He has capitalized on his blitzing ability to compile five sacks and a team-high 12 tackles for loss.

"I think people used to know me and recognize me off my return game," Arenas said. "I think they recognize me as a cornerback now.''

Alabama's secondary also features ball-hawking strong safety Mark Barron, who leads the SEC in interceptions with seven and also has 10 pass breakups.

Both teams also have big-name performers up front, though Alabama's best lineman is a run-stuffer while Florida is known for its pass rushers.

Alabama lacks a top-caliber pass rusher, but the Tide have forced teams into obvious passing situations by shutting down the run. Alabama hasn't allowed a single player to rush for 100 yards in a game since the 354-pound Cody started suiting up for the Tide last season.

Cody saved Alabama's undefeated season by blocking two field-goal attempts in a 12-10 victory over Tennessee and is the biggest reason - literally and figuratively - Alabama has allowed just 2.6 yards per rush this season.

"Terrence has really worked hard to get in a little better shape, have a little bit better endurance, be able to sustain a little bit better, play with a little more quickness and mobility," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "He's a real power guy, and he has always been that. But we've been really pleased with all those other things that he's improved on."

Cody has played well enough to get nominated for three separate national awards, but he hardly is alone in that regard. These defenses feature so many award nominees that they ought to stroll down a red carpet on their way to the Georgia Dome.

Cody is a finalist for the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy, honors given to the nation's top defensive player. Spikes is a finalist for the Bednarik Award and the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker. McClain was selected as a finalist for the Butkus Award and the Lott Trophy, which goes to the nation's top impact defensive player. Haden is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's best defensive back.

While both defenses boast a plethora of NFL prospects, there's also a notable lack of ego. Haden believes neither team would have reached this point without having plenty of unselfishness.

"We don't just play for individual stats," he said. "We don't just play for ourselves. We play for our teammates. ... If you really care about your teammates, it makes you go that much harder for them. I don't know how Alabama is doing it, but it looks like they really care about each other, too, the way they play [with] all the passion and emotion."

Alabama certainly plays with passion and emotion. It also plays with plenty of incentive.

The Tide can't forget the finish of last season's SEC championship game. Alabama led Florida before giving up two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of a 31-20 loss. Florida went on to beat Oklahoma in the BCS championship game, while the Tide fell to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

"I think our guys got caught up in the pressure," McClain said. "They wanted to be the hero and make the extra-effort play instead of just doing what we had to do and doing what our job was and letting our defense take care of itself.

"If everybody does their job, this defense takes care of itself."

That description fits both defenses equally well.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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