Are the Florida Gators' Defensive Struggles Overblown?

Under seemingly constant criticism, one may ask if the expectations set on the Florida Gators' defense is too high.
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It has been a constant criticism throughout the shortened, conference-only 2020 football season for the No. 6 Florida Gators: The defense needs to improve, and it must improve quickly.

From the onset, the Gators' defense appeared to be the one eyesore within the program. Led by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the criticism his unit received - and still does - was warranted. However, in recent weeks, particularly with the emergence of the team's stout defensive line with the addition of defensive tackle Kyree Campbell, there appears to be less room for such criticism.

Parsing through statistics, the Gators' defense ranks near the middle of the pack in the SEC. According to ESPN, Florida ranks 9th in total, giving up 410.6 yards-per-game, while passing defense ranks No. 9 giving up 268.9 passing YPG, and its run defense ranks 7th in the SEC, giving up 141.7 rushing YPG.

On Tuesday, Grantham was asked about the team's defense and whether or not the recent criticism cast upon his defense was legitimate, and concerning moving forward.

“I think No. 1 is that we’ve played really good defense around here and that we’ve been able to win a lot of games," Grantham said of his assessment. "The bottom line is you win games. Right now I believe today we’re the winningest staff over the last three years coming in new, you know as far as number of wins. So obviously we’re doing something right."

In this case, and particular situation, Grantham is correct, and to venture further, context is key.

Over the first three weeks of the season, the Florida defense was allowing an average of 33 points-per-game, while also allowing 331 passing YPG and 164 rushing YPG.

With the return of Campbell at defensive tackle and several weeks of tuning this season, the Gators defense has allowed just 24.25 PPG, 222.25 passing YPG and 125 rushing YPG. For reference, the Gators defense would rank 4th, 2nd and 5th in such categories if they were stacked up against season-long averages within the entirety of the SEC.

"Like I’ve said before there’s no perfect game, there’s no perfect player," Grantham continued. "We can finish better, we can do the things that I talked about better and to be a little cleaner. But at the end of the day you can go back to some games, for example in the Ole Miss game. We weren’t playing great, but we were up so big, I mean in the fourth quarter we were just playing to get the game over with."

The last part of Grantham's statement regarding the Week 1 contest, "we were just playing to get the game over with," presents a very real example of some of the issues Florida has gone through thus far this season, and why some statistics are skewed, while others simply cannot be ignored.

During the team's matchup against the Rebels, Florida was up 28-14 at halftime. Ole Miss quarterback had thrown for just 125 yards and two touchdowns, while the Ole Miss rushing attack ran for 118 yards on the ground. Those statistics, on the surface, aren't an issue, and validates Grantham's statement, especially when factoring in that 74 yards passing came on two plays for Corral. 

The issue, however, lies in those two plays, explosive yardage given up that has become a norm for the Florida defense this season.

Florida Gators Defense Big Plays Allowed

GAMEBIG PLAYS ALLOWED (PASS)BIG PLAYS ALLOWED YARDS (PASS)BIG PLAYS ALLOWED (RUN)BIG PLAYS ALLOWED YARDS (RUN)

1

8

323

6

100

2

3

59

3

35

3

5

164

7

107

4

6

97

2

43

5

3

75

6

151

6

4

169

6

144

7

9

216

1

15

While Florida has had some successful outings in preventing many big plays, which are categorized as 15 yards or more passing, and 10 yards or more rushing, respectively, they've had some dreadful outings, too. Those outings have been the major criticisms of Grantham's defense this year, and have been addressed numerous times by the Florida coaching staff via the media.

Thus far, Florida has allowed an average of 5.4 big-play passes per game this season with an average of 157.57 big-play passing yards allowed per game. On the ground, they've given up an average of 4.4 big-play runs per game with 85 big-play rushing yards allowed per game.

In an SEC-only schedule this season, those big plays allowed could be a symptom of just that. However, the frequency - including to teams that are playing poorly this season - is a major concern.

"When you go back to that last game (against Vanderbilt), at the end of the day, the last eight possessions, they had seven points," said Grantham. "When you look at it, there were like nine plays for 218 and there were like 67 plays or 65 plays for 188. I mean, that’s like a number, OK. So it’s like I told the guys: I said, ‘these nine plays, how do we fix those?’ If you just reduce it to half of that, you’re holding teams under 5 yards a play, which would put you as a premier defense in the country."

Ultimately, the Gators are playing good defense. Some of the criticism is valid, that of which Grantham addresses every week, but overall, the team has played well - certainly much better than earlier in the season. While limiting the big plays will continue to be an emphasis, the team - as Grantham says - is just a few big plays allowed being negated from becoming -statistically -, one of the best defenses in the country.  

The light will have to be turned on, especially as the team continues through this season and into a potential SEC Championship game against Alabama on Dec. 19, but if the returns over the last four games are any indication, they do have what it takes to get there.

Until then, Florida (6-1) will continue to enjoy wins.