Dominant defense has returned Gators to national title contention

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Can't you feel 'em circlin', honeyCan't you feel 'em schoolin' aroundYou've got fins to the left, fins to the rightAnd you're the only bait in town

Jimmy Buffett probably has seen plenty of sharks swarm freshly chummed water, but the carnage at sea couldn't have compared to the bloodbath Gators coach UrbanMeyer's favorite singer witnessed between the 4:37 and 3:52 marks during the first quarter of Florida's 56-6 win. Facing third-and-five from his own 13, Smelley heaved a blooper seconds before Florida linebacker Brandon Hicks chomped him. The ball floated directly to fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes, who snared it and skated 12 yards for a touchdown. On Smelley's next play -- he alternated most of the day with freshman Stephen Garcia -- he threw directly to Florida safety Ahmad Black, who only made it to the Gamecocks' 26. Not to worry; Florida's Percy Harvin rocketed all 26 for a touchdown on the Gators' next play.

"From there," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said, "we were playing to keep it respectable."

That's why Spurrier, who has seen his share of dominant, scoreboard-rattling Florida teams, said this of the Gators. "This team's a lot better than that [eventual national champion] two years ago. I said they had a chance because they won all the close ones two years ago. ... But this team that they've got now is a lot stronger."

And he didn't say that because of the offense.

Florida had a great offense last year, and look where that got the Gators. They finished the season in the Bowl Formerly Known as Citrus watching Michigan receivers streak past and into the end zone. Great offense and no defense won quarterback Tim Tebow a Heisman Trophy, and it lost Florida four games.

This season, as linebacker Spikes put it, the Gators are "trying to get the defense back to '06." Coordinator Charlie Strong -- who for some reason isn't getting the potential head-coaching love of his Texas counterpart Will Muschamp or his Virginia Tech counterpart Bud Foster -- has done his part, developing a group that last year would have gotten scored on defending a convent. How close is this senior-free group to that senior-heavy 2006 unit? Through 10 games, the Gators have allowed 11.3 points and 274.9 yards a game. Through 10 games in 2006, Florida had allowed 13.3 points and 289.9 yards a game. Of course, that defense would close the season by holding top-ranked Ohio State to 82 measly yards in the BCS title game. It remains to be seen whether these Gators can finish like those Gators, but if they hope to win the national title, they can't expect to just outscore their foes -- no matter how potent Tebow, Harvin and company might be.

And though none of the young defenders is a biology major, the group has learned about symbiotic relationships. "Defense," sophomore cornerback Joe Haden said, "can be the best offense."

Indeed. Since the defense's inexplicable meltdown on a long touchdown late in a Sept. 27 loss to Ole Miss, Florida defenders have been the best wingmen. Of the 42 touchdowns Florida has scored during its six-game win streak, 16 have come either from interceptions returned for touchdowns or on drives of fewer than 50 yards. Some of those short fields have come courtesy of blocked punts and long punt returns, but remember, the defense forced the punts in the first place.

So who has benefited most from the defense's improvement? Is it Spikes, a junior whose draft stock has skyrocketed this season? Is it Strong, who, even if he doesn't get considered for the head-coaching job he so richly deserves, will at least get a fat raise? No and no. The person who benefitted most also is the proud owner of a large, bronze, stiff-arming trophy.

"That's a big difference with this team, and also probably with me," Tebow said. "I don't have to score, don't have to make the big play every time." The emergence of backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey has allowed Tebow to carry 51 fewer times than at this point last year, but it's the defense's dominance -- and the large leads it has helped build -- that have allowed Tebow to throw 41 fewer times. That freshness could come in handy down the stretch.

More importantly, though the Gators have gained 316 fewer yards this season than they did in their first 10 games last year, they've scored 28 more points. The defense has hurt Tebow and the offense's stats in every column except the only one that matters. "Yeah, we might not put up as many yards as we would have, but that's not our goal," Tebow said. "Our goal is to win."

So how did Florida's defense turn from Swiss cheese into a Swiss Army knife? Strong and assistants Dan McCarney, Chuck Heater and Vance Bedford certainly deserve some of the credit. "[Strong] has turned into one of the best coordinators in the country," coach Meyer said. "I don't know if it's the scheme. I think it's more getting guys to play and developing players. ... If someone said evaluate coach Strong and evaluate your defensive coaches, they're not scheme doctors. They do an excellent job with the development of players."

Last year, Strong and co-coordinator Greg Mattison -- since departed to the Baltimore Ravens -- had to play whoever seemed somewhat fit to take the field. This year, Strong can watch backups push starters at practice, and, if the backups play well enough, they become the starters. For instance, linebacker A.J. Jones missed Saturday with a knee sprain. He probably wishes he hadn't. "A.J. Jones did not go, and a guy named Hicks jogged in there and played for us," Meyer said. "I've got a feeling A.J. Jones is going to practice real hard if he wants to play. ... We have competition. That makes you play harder, and it makes you play smarter."

Smarter is the key word. Cornerback Joe Haden said last year, Florida defenders played "like robots." When something didn't compute, the other team's band played. Now, Haden said, the Gators understand the offenses they face. "We're anticipating," Haden said. "Last year, we were reacting."

If Florida's defense keeps dominating, the Gators can anticipate a trip to Miami to play for the national title. Buffett already has written a song to provide the soundtrack.

Everybody's got a cousin in MiamiEverybody understands the impromptuDancing in the heat to the beatIt turns your clothing clammy (ooooohhhhh)Everybody needs to have a dream come true