Florida’s defense has been or verged on great for many, many years.
The 1990 Gators gave up 171 points in 11 games. The 1991 Gators gave up 191 points despite playing six teams that won nine or more games. In 1995 and 1996, Florida yielded 201 points through the SEC Championship Game — and, well, the 1996 Gators defense acquitted itself nicely in its de facto national championship game.
The 1998 Gators allowed more than 23 points once. Same for the 2001 Gators. The 2006 Gators never allowed 30 points, and shut down one of the most vaunted offenses of the modern era to win it all. The 2008 Gators reprised that latter feat, and allowed 30 just once, in the only game in which they allowed more than 21 points all year. Florida’s 2009 defense gave up fewer points than either of those title-winning units did, and if not for an SEC Championship Game played without a suspended Carlos Dunlap, might well have gone a whole year without giving up more than 20 points.
Florida’s 2012 defense gave up 188 points despite its offense scoring less than twice that tally, something no Gators defense allowing fewer than 200 points in a season had been forced to deal with since 1989. And the Gators’ 2015 defense conceded just 159 points through its first 11 games before a collapse that produced 97 points over three games, Florida’s first stretch of three games allowing 27 or more points since an infamously flammable defense did so in 2007.
And yet: The 2016 Gators defense might just be better than all of them.
Through three games, Florida’s defense:
- Has allowed 14 points, its fewest over three games in 50 years.
- Has held its first three opponents under 200 yards, and become the only FBS team to do so in 2016.
- Has allowed the fewest yards in a game in school history.
- Has allowed fewer points total than every other SEC team has given up in at least one game.
- Is leading the nation in total defense, scoring defense, yards per play allowed, yards per carry allowed, plays of 10 or more yards allowed, sacks, completions allowed — Florida has allowed just 18 completions over three games — and completion percentage allowed, first downs allowed, and first downs allowed by pass.
- Is first nationally in Defensive S&P+ — and has vaulted Florida from No. 20 in overall S&P+ to No. 9.
- Is second nationally in both rushing and passing defense.
- Is one of just two FBS teams to have not given up a passing touchdown, and one of two FBS teams to have not given up more than two total touchdowns.
- Is sixth nationally in third down conversion percentage allowed, and has allowed just one fourth down conversion in four attempts.
- Is tied for 10th nationally in yards per pass attempt allowed.
That’s one long list of awesomeness, and I’m pretty sure that it’s not an exhaustive one. It’s a testament to what Florida’s defense can do and has done, though it’s worth noting those stats were compiled against three bad teams. In just the last 10 years, Florida’s 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, and 2006 defenses all gave up fewer than 20 points to two non-conference foes and Kentucky — but because Florida played Tennessee prior to playing Kentucky in all five of those seasons, the Gators’ start didn’t look so good.
It’s also worth noting two underdiscussed things that have contributed to Florida’s start.
First: Florida’s close to the national lead in another defensive category that rarely gets mentioned — plays. The Gators have played just 150 defensive snaps through three games, tied with Wisconsin for second nationally among teams that have played three games. Every team that has seen fewer snaps than the Gators over just two games is averaging more snaps faced per game, too.
That has plenty to do with the Florida offense. While it’s not a perfect match, look at how closely the national rankings in time of possession and defensive plays faced resemble each other ... and then look at rush attempts. Florida’s actually not high on that last list, at only 122 carries, but the Gators have generally plodded this season, draining clock rather than hurrying up, and that strategy, combined with many three-and-outs by the Florida defense, has helped keep the defense fresh and healthy.
Second: As mentioned above, Florida is first in first downs allowed and first downs allowed by pass. It’s tied for eighth in first downs allowed by rush.
And the Gators are tied for 119th in first downs allowed by penalty, with nine — exactly as many as they have allowed through the air.
That’s one amazing stat, and it looks even more absurd in fuller context, but it speaks to one way to attack the Florida defense: Use its aggressiveness against it. Five of those penalty first downs came on personal fouls; three were on pass interference calls.
And if those 15-yard penalties all counted as plays given up by the Gators, they would be among the 10 best plays by opposing offenses against Florida all season.
Basically, to this point, one of opposing offenses’ best outcomes against Florida’s defense has been allowing it to defeat itself on those rare downs when it is not wholly destroying those offenses.
Tennessee’s offense — ranked No. 100 in total offense, No. 56 in rushing offense (and No. 73 in yards per carry), No. 109 in passing offense, and No. 42 in Offensive S&P+ — has not exactly proven itself proficient at even not defeating itself so far. Maybe the best thing about it is its incredible efficacy at recovering its own fumbles: The Vols have dropped the ball 11 times on offense this fall, yet have somehow also recovered 10 of those potential giveaways — including one at the goal line in overtime against Appalachian State that could have been a game-losing mistake, but instead produced the game-winning touchdown.
Florida’s defense might just be able to put up some more numbers on Saturday.