FORT LAUDERDALE – The way they were putting up points in the wild, wild South of the Big 12 Conference this past football season, you would think that Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State left their defenses back home on the range.
Those four schools, with their gunslinging quarterbacks, were among the Top 10 schools in the Bowl Subdivision Series (FBS) in both scoring and total offense.
But defense – that’s another story. Except for the Longhorns, who ranked 18th in scoring defense and 49th in total defense, the other three Big 12 schools finished near or among the bottom half of the 119 BCS schools in the two categories.
That has fostered the notion that the Florida Gators should have a huge edge defensively when they battle the Oklahoma Sooners this Thursday night at nearby Dolphin Stadium in the BCS National Championship Game. After all, the Gators, ranked third in scoring offense and 18th in total offense, are fifth nationally in both scoring and total defense.
And that, according to Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, would be a big, big mistake.
“It’s not the SEC versus the Big 12,” said Venables, who played under Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops when he was co-defensive coordinator (with South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt) at Kansas State for Bill Snyder. “It’s Oklahoma against Florida. That’s it. People can sit and debate about who’s better defensively, who’s better offensively. (But) they didn’t have a big debate about the Mountain West versus the SEC the other night, because it comes down to execution, it comes down to tackle, it comes down to staying on top, it comes down to getting off the field or converting on third down. We’re concerned more than anything else about how we match up and how we play against Florida.”
Venables points out that the Sooners, who have 24.5 points and 359.1 yards a game while going 12-1, rank No. 1 in turnover margin at 1.77 a game, just ahead of Florida’s 1.69. The Gators’ defense has created 33 turnovers (nine fumble recoveries and 24 interceptions), one more than the Sooners (15 fumble recoveries, 17 interceptions).
“The turnovers have been huge,” Venables said. “Our defense has scored or set up 154 points (of the record 702 the Sooners scored) this year … we take pride in that.”
As well they should says Florida’s new offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, who isn’t buying that weak-defense stuff about the Big 12 after watching film of Venables’ defenders.
“I see a very good defense that is very well coordinated,” Addazio said. “Remember, we’re talking about the top 2 teams playing for the national championship that are very good on offense, defense and special teams.
Part of the defensive struggles resulted when middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds tore a right knee ligament in the third quarter of the 45-35 loss to Texas on Oct. 11. The Sooners turned to Nic Harris and then to Austin Box, who suffered a knee sprain in the season finale against Oklahoma State and missed the Big 12 Championship game. The redshirt freshman was replaced by junior Mike Balogun and both are listed as possible starters against the Gators.
“Those guys are kind of the quarterback on defense, at least for the front seven in particular,” Venables said. “There were some growing pains there for a couple of games (with) three first-year players at the position.”
In fact, Oklahoma strong safety Nic Harris, who has a linebacker build (230 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame), volunteered to play the position in order to stabilize it. Eventually, the Sooners got comfortable and forced 23 of its 32 turnovers in their final seven games.
“At the end of the day, it’s about winning, whether you’re in the SEC, the Big 12 South, the Big 12 North, Mountain West, the WAC, whatever,” Harris said. “At the end of the day, it’s about winning. You have the privilege to play in a bowl game, whatever bowl game it is. Fortunately it’s the national championship for us, and what we want to do is we want to win.”
Nor does Harris believe the Gators have too much speed for the Sooners’ defense. “Can they keep up with the speed of our defense,” he said.
“Our defense takes pride that despite the lumps we’ve taken this season, we’re still where we need to be,” Harris concluded. “What’s the old cliché quote? Offense wins games, defense wins championship?”
Florida should know – its dominating defenses in 2006 and 1996 played a big part in the Gators’ national championships.
Anybody remember the name of that defensive coordinator for Steve Spurrier in 1996?
In case you forgot, Bob Stoops will be working the other sideline Thursday night.
How Florida compares to Big 12 South Division teams Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in various NCAA statistics:
1. Oklahoma 54.00
3. Florida 45.15
4. Texas 43.92
5. Texas Tech 43.77
9. Oklahoma State 40.77
3. Oklahoma 562.1
4. Texas Tech 531.0
6. Oklahoma St. 487.7
9. Texas 476.4
18. Florida 442.4
5. Florida 12.8
18. Texas 18.6
58. Oklahoma 24.5
74. Texas Tech 27.8
75. Oklahoma St. 28.1
5. Florida 279.3
49. Texas 339.9
63. Oklahoma 359.1
78. Texas Tech 382.6
93. Oklahoma St. 405.5
Turnovers taken (fumbles-interceptions) minus turnovers given up
1. Oklahoma 32 (15-17)-9 (2-7) 23 1.77
2. Florida 33 (9-24)-11 (8-3) 22 1.69
T22. Texas Tech 29 (11-18)-21 (11-10) 8 0.62
T36. Oklahoma St. 25 (13-12)-20 (10-10) 5 0.38
T43. Texas 16 (10-6)-13 (6-7) 3 0.25
T5. Florida 33
T9. Oklahoma 32
T20. Texas Tech 29
T42. Oklahoma St. 25
104. Texas 16