Written By: Eric Burdette
“I haven’t seen any goats.”
Cliff (played by Steve Zahn)
“I don’t expect you would, Cliff.
Your situational awareness kinda sucks.
That’s not a knock.
You’re a screenwriter, I’m a Jedi.”
Nick (played by Timothy Oliphant) in A Perfect Getaway
Ah, the old “situational awareness”.
“Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.”
-United States Coast Guard training manual
Seems like every one of Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain’s practices have a theme. Tuesday’s theme was “Situational Awareness”.
Specifically, the team spent a great deal of time working on a variety of pressure situations related to down and distance such as third and short, third and long, and red zone possessions as well change of possession (turnovers).
“One of the big things we’ve been focusing on is situational football,” defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said. “Coach Mac puts us in a different situation every day — red zone, third and long, third and short. Whatever it may be, every day we’re hitting different situations. The awareness that those guys have on third downs, money downs in the red, has improved.”
If the Florida Gators football team hopes to go from being writers to Jedi then they must improve their situational awareness.
It wasn’t merely the defense, however, as the offense worked in unison with the defense on situational football.
“I thought we got a lot of really good situation work today,” head coach Jim McElwain said referring to the offense. “Especially third down and mid-red area, which is one of the things when you take over, when you’re installing, one of the things that’s hard because there’s so much new learning, is getting into really operating in the situational stuff.”
Why so much emphasis on situational football or situational awareness? Because these particular plays are potential scoring and/or change of possession downs. They call them “money downs” for a reason.
A good staff will try to prepare both sides of the ball for every possible situation so that when they get there they won’t have to think, they’ll simply react and play through as they are taught.
One of the most telling stats in football which determine success or failure is third down conversion percentage. Offensively, a team generally can expect it necessary to convert a couple of third downs along the way if it hopes to execute long scoring drives.
It’s no secret that the teams who convert on third down at higher rates have much better odds of winning than those who do not.
Last season, three of the final four teams in the first college football playoff (Oregon #9, Alabama #4, and eventual champion Ohio State #3) finished the season in the top ten nationally in third down conversion percentage.
The Gators, however, finished at the opposite end of that spectrum coming in at 95th in the nation converting a paltry 36.5% of third downs last season. That’s a huge part of why the Gators finished with a poor 7-5 record, an improvement over 4-8 in 2013, but still light years away from what is expected in Gainesville.
Of all the improvements which are necessary for the Gators offense next season perhaps the most important is becoming more efficient on third down.
The sister act to third down conversion is red zone conversion which measures how efficient an offense is once it reaches scoring position known as the red zone (Generally considered to be inside an opponents 20 yard line).
Surprisingly, the Gators were actually pretty good in that regard last season finishing 11th in the nation in red zone conversion percentage, scoring on 40 of their 44 red zone trips. While they were efficient once they got there, they simply didn’t get there often enough. Rival Florida State had 59 red zone opportunities, while Alabama had 64, Ohio State had 74, and Oregon had a whopping 80 red zone possessions.
The prescription for more red zone opportunities?
More third down conversions.
Defensively, while the Gators finished last season ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense (15th) and scoring defense (20th), they certainly did not bear much resemblance to the stalwart Gator defenses of the previous three seasons.
The Gators offensive ineptitude allowed most opponents to play it close to the vest which masked some of the Gators defensive shortcomings last season.
So what was the Gator defense’s biggest failure last season?
You guessed it, third down conversion.
The Gators finished 52nd in the nation in third down conversion defense and their inability to get off the field, particularly in late game situations, doomed them on all too many occasions.
So, needless to say, Collins and company have been focusing on third down situational drills this spring.
“One of the biggest things we’ve got to improve is situational awareness and understanding third-down situations,” Collins said.
Oftentimes last season, the defense looked lost on third down and they played tentatively. By emphasizing and focusing on third down situational drills, the staff hopes they’ll be more prepared which will allow them to think less and react more.
The Gators red zone conversion percentage defense was a little bit better than their third down defense but not by much as they finished 35th in the nation and a middle of the road sixth place in the SEC.
To counteract this, the Gators have focused specifically on change of possession situations where the defense is forced to go back in quickly without notice due to an offensive turnover and often with their backs against the wall in the red zone.
“Understanding if we ever do give up a turnover that it’s our job not to let them in the end zone and not let them get points,” Collins said. “So situational awareness when they get to the red zone, making sure they stay out of the end zone. The yards are great, but then the situations that you are going to come into — two minutes before the half, two minutes after the half — those have to be on point as well. So that’s one of the big emphasis that we’ve been putting on our guys every day.”
With the bulk of the Gators two-deep returning on defense, the staff is surely hoping the emphasis on situational football will improve their defensive performance next season. And with a young, newly installed offense likely taking baby steps, they’ll need the defense to step up and carry the team for a while early on while the offense grows some wings.