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Road To Pasadena: Jermaine Cunningham

Championship seasons are defined by the guys who have career years out of nowhere; Scott Brosius for the 1998 Yankees, Kurt Warner for the 1999 Rams, Jo Noah for the 2006 Gators. On the Gators' defensive line, Carlos Dunlap had a breakout season in 2008, ending with the defensive MVP award in the National Championship Game. Now with the focus and double teams firmly on Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham must have his breakout season.

In his final season, you'd figure it would be Cunningham having the press about him, but Cunningham has never gotten the attention like Dunlap and Jarvis Moss had. It's easy to think of Cunningham as a senior simply finishing his career, while Dunlap is on pace to be a top-10 NFL pick. Both might be true, but we could be looking at something better than another All-SEC year for Cunningham (he was second team AP All-SEC in 2008).

Consider this; Cunningham only played in six games as a freshman, recording two tackles. As a sophomore, he played in each game, recording 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Then it was 10 sacks and 52 tackles last season. I'm not making the case for Cunningham to have 15 sacks, but when Dunlap gets 13.5 in 2008, is 15 out of reach for Cunningham?

I mention the year by year progression, because for both Cunningham and Dunlap, this is their third year of regular playing time. Dunlap has seen less plays, as he has never been a locked in starter. But in terms of understanding game speed, both should be equal. If you're expecting a dominant year from Dunlap, we should expand the same from Cunningham.

Florida's defensive line depth appears to be a strength. But depth means nothing when the ends cannot get to the quarterback. If Cunningham has a career season, that will free up the rest of the line, creating chaos in the backfield. If that happens, we will see a defense better than the one that limited Oklahoma to 14 points.