The "No-Fly Zone" nickname for Florida's secondary came about in 2012, as a strong unit led by Matt Elam and Josh Evans backstopped a very good defense, and limited most of the quarterbacks Florida saw to days much worse than their average. The nickname even ended up on the shirt of Florida freshman Marcell Harris for his November 2012 commitment ceremony.
With the losses of Elam and Evans to the NFL, some shuffling of the returning players, and replacements necessitated by injury — Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins are playing more safety than corner now; Marcus Roberson's been spelled by fantastic freshman Vernon Hargreaves III — it would be totally understandable if Florida's secondary were a little more permissive in 2013.
Unfortunately for Florida's foes, the Gators have been better in 2013 without two of the 2012 secondary's leaders, and mostly without three of its starters.
In fact, they've been much better.
Here are the passing lines given up by Florida's defense this year:
That table, taken as a whole, is insane, but the individual components lend themselves to other mind-blowing component stats.
- The only team to throw for more than one touchdown against Florida is Miami, which is tied with Baylor with 13 passing touchdowns on the season, and eighth nationally in passer rating.
- After failing to complete 45 percent of its passes against Florida, Toledo completed better than 61 percent of its passes in its next four games.
- Of the four teams allowing a lower completion percentage than Florida's defense (46.4 percent) this year, only UNLV hasn't seen 40 or more pass attempts twice ... and that's largely because UNLV's rush defense is horrific, ranked 124th of 125 teams nationally.
- Kentucky is the only team to complete more than 50 percent of its passes against Florida, but that number is actually Kentucky's third-best completion percentage this season — the 'Cats have topped 70 percent twice.
- Florida's 4.6 yards per attempt allowed ranks third nationally, to Michigan State (4.2) and Washington (4.3). Both Michigan State and Washington have played FCS teams (Youngstown State and Idaho State, respectively), and none of Michigan State's four FBS foes is currently ranked among the top 60 teams nationally in YPA; Washington's seen No. 24 Stanford and No. 44 Boise State, but also saw No. 123 Arizona. (Florida's faced No. 6 Miami, No. 49 Kentucky, No. 83 Arkansas, No. 104 Toledo, and No. 111 Tennessee.)
- Florida, Virginia Tech, UNLV, and Michigan State are the only four teams nationally to have allowed a composite passer rating of less than 100.00 and have allowed just one game of better than 100.00 passer rating this year. The Hokies gave up their triple-digit day to North Carolina, the Rebels yielded one to New Mexico, and Michigan State allowed one to Iowa — Florida's came against Miami, eighth nationally in passer rating, and was more than 50 points lower than the 'Canes have averaged this season. (Bizarre but true: Miami's worst passer rating in 2013 came against Florida Atlantic, not Florida.)
- Thanks largely to Miami's fine first quarter, Florida's pass defense in the first quarter is actually pedestrian: 19 completions on 32 attempts for 202 yards and two touchdowns, for a 133.04 rating that ranks 68th nationally. But Florida is one of just 19 teams in the country to have faced 100 pass attempts in the second half and overtime, one of just 19 teams to have allowed opponents to complete fewer than 50 percent of their passes in the second half and overtime — and the only team in both groups.
- Florida's third down passing defense is insane: The Gators have allowed a 56.65 passer rating, allowed 18 completions on 46 attempts, given up just 10 first downs, and snagged five interceptions. Only Miami, which got two Jeff Driskel picks on third down, bests Florida in passer rating allowed on third down.
- The numbers get even nuttier on third downs with seven to nine yards to go: Florida has allowed two completions for five yards on 13 attempts and grabbed two picks, good for a -12.15 passer rating allowed. Yes, that's a negative number.
Florida's secondary isn't doing this all on its own: Commenter GatorJustin watched all of Florida's defensive snaps this year and came away impressed by the Gators' pressure from up front; that pressure has largely come from the defensive line, which allows Florida to drop seven men in coverage on passing downs. Florida's linebackers, Michael Taylor in particular, have been quite good in coverage this year. And the Gators' rush defense has been stellar, forcing teams into obvious passing situations that make life easier on cover men.
But I can't argue than Florida's worse than a top-three pass defense with the numbers put up so far — Michigan State and Washington are also in the top three in some order — and if you put more stock in how Florida shut down Miami's passing game for three quarters than it being strafed for one, you can make the argument that Florida's got the best pass defense in the country without too much straining.
The Gators are also outpacing their 2012 counterparts. Florida's defense had faced Texas A&M and LSU through its first five games last year, but it had allowed more than 200 yards three times, and had put together two good and two average performances wrapped around a hideous day from Kentucky's quarterbacks. Though that 2012 defense would end up second in passer rating allowed (often referred to as pass efficiency defense), it gave up four days of 80.00+ ratings in its first five games, and two of more than 100; the 2013 Gators have yielded two and one of those two categories, respectively.
The going will get tougher from here on in for these Gators, to be fair: Florida plays the teams ranked No. 2 (Florida State), No. 4 (LSU) and No. 6 (Georgia) in passer rating in its last seven games, and will also see No. 20 Missouri and No. 22 South Carolina away from The Swamp, where Florida's allowed just one passing touchdown in three games this year.
If Florida's secondary is going to keep up its reputation as a no-fly zone, it'll have to keep up against some of the best aerial attacks in the country, and take its show on the road.
Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.
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