Will Muschamp and Charlie Strong are both great at two things: They both know how to motivate young men to play at their highest level, and they know how to coach defense.
Muschamp and Strong also both won national championships as the defensive coordinators at traditional power schools. Muschamp had uber athletic quarterback Vince Young to assist him on the offensive side of the ball, while Stong had Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. So, now that they are both head coaches, why is it that Muschamp's team is a double-digit favorite? Experience. Muschamp brings a defense that has very little youth and it shows. The Gators win with their defense. And it is one of the best in the country.
"Elite" is a word that's tossed around a lot when defenses are discussed. To me you have to ask one question if you feel like a defense is elite. Does it have both talent AND experience. Talent will get you so far. Ask Lane Kiffen. You have to be able to reload when you lose guys and the only way to do that is to build through recruiting. Florida has five guys that will start in the Sugar Bowl that were recruited to play for Charlie Strong. Three of them will start on the defensive line. All three were in the top five in their positional rankings coming out of high school. You can't teach game experience. You also can't teach intensity and heart. Sharrif Floyd has plenty of both, and he anchors this unit.
Floyd is what every great defense needs. A big defensive tackle that plays harder than everyone else on the field. What makes Floyd special is that he's more talented than the vast majority of "motor" guys. Pair him up with 313-pound Omar Hunter, and you have what is arguably the best tandem of defensive tackles in the country. Both are strong enough to plug the middle against the run, but agile enough to stunt and twist against the pass. Florida blitzes from all angles, but it's rare you see guys this big swing around a defensive end on a blitz.
The Gators employ a similar defense to the Cardinals. They have what is called a "Buck" position. It's a hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker spot. Lerentee McCray mans this spot while Dominique Easley mans the other side. Easley leads the team in sacks but the team doesn't get a ton of big plays from it's stable of defensive ends. The one area where the team lags is getting to the quarterback. As athletic as these guys are, they carry a lot of weight. They might not be able to play as fast as they could if they were a little slimmer. Teddy Bridgewater has been outstanding when he's had time in the pocket this year. Florida will need their line to pressure him. Teddy will find open guys if you blitz him too often. It's one of his biggest strengths.
How UofL Will Attack Them:
You run right at them. Florida's run defense is legit. So why not try to take away something from the defense as a whole? Florida likes to get exotic with it's pressure. The way to tone that down a bit is to try to force the defensive line to man it's gaps. That will hopefully slow down the stunts and blitzes a little. Also, if Louisville can get 3-4 yards on first down, it will really open up the playbook for Shawn Watson. They allow only 3 yards per carry, so that's a pretty big "if".
If you want to point to a "weak" spot in the defense (there's not "weak" spot), it's the linebackers. It's not a unit that puts up a ton of tackles. They don't make a extraordinary amount of plays behind the line of scrimmage. They don't pick off a lot of passes. But that's the beauty of this defense. They don't have to. Jonathan Bostic does everything well. Really, everything. He can blitz, cover backs, play zone, and just flat out tackle. He and Jelani Jenkins were a perfect blend of senior leadership and steadiness mixed with speed and athleticism. Jenkins has already been declared out for the game, but his replacement Antonio Morrison has had plenty of game time and has been a solid player over the last few games. Jenkins' playmaking ability will be missed, but Muschamp has played a lot of guys this year and even the young guys are ready when called upon.
How UofL Will Attack Them:
I don't think I've seen a team ask more of it's linebackers than Florida asks of theirs. These guys are everywhere. Nowhere are they better than in zone coverage. They blend with the secondary extremely well and make every window extremely tight. They can also blitz in various ways. The key for Louisville will be to exploit the windows in front and behind the linebackers. Think of some of the plays Andrell Smith and Eli Rogers have made in the middle of the field, the dump offs to the running backs, and the quick passes to the tight ends. Florida won't allow you to attack the hash marks with slants and curls. Their linebackers and safeties will be there to make you pay. If Teddy has time, which he should, the middle of the field might be open behind the linebackers. However, Watson might choose to use the passing game as an extension of the running game and call more short, quick passes to get 4-6 yards. It might not be exciting, but it causes the defense to react to the offense. That's an edge that Watson will need.
Matt Elam is a sociopath. Really, he might be insane. He's also my favorite non-UofL player. This kid is an amazing talent and he's the key to Florida's defense. The scheme that Florida runs all but allows Elam to do whatever he wants (think Troy Polamalu in his prime). That has to be a nightmare for opposing coaches. Elam is the type of player that UofL hasn't faced this year. He makes plays all over the field and he plays with a unique brand of controlled chaos. Plenty of guys can make a tackle in the open field. How many safeties can you name that can catch a streaking receiver and not just secure the tackle, but strip the ball at the same time? Elam's greatest contribution, however, is in run support. He does a great job of diagnosing outside run plays and flying upfield and he comes with bad intentions. His ability to make plays on sweeps and off tackle plays allows the linebackers to stay inside and stuff the inside runs. He really is a game changer.
Florida easily has the best secondary in the country. Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy are super quick corners and they are usually all on the field at the same time. The three of these guys will be responsible for matching up with the plethora of receivers Louisville throws at it's opponents. Muschamp and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn love to mix coverages and confuse quarterbacks. The team had a total of 19 interceptions and 49 pass break ups. A lot of those came from quarterbacks trying to fit a ball into a window that wasn't there. The speed in which these guys break on passes is uncanny. Teddy is an unbelievable football player, but he hasn't faced a scheme like this with the talent that Florida has.
Josh Evans typically covers the deep middle for the Gators. He is a steady player that easily leads the team in tackles. Even with Florida's excellent secondary, teams decided to pass the ball against the Gators much more than they ran it. Evans played his role extremely well as the last line of defense. When a player broke loose, he was always there to make the open field tackle. He's not a big hitter or an unbelievably speedy guy, but he takes great angles and doesn't get beat often. Evans will be a focal point for Watson and Teddy, because his alignment typically shows what type of coverage they're running.
How UofL Will Attack Them:
Louisville has a pretty good size advantage outside. Florida's corners aren't short by any measure, but they are pretty slight. Andrell Smith and DeVante Parker are built pretty solid. I think Teddy will get the green light to work the ball down the sideline if he sees the right coverage. Watson might also try to force Matt Elam into man coverage. Louisville doesn't typically spread the field that much, but Elam has ended up covering a slot receiver in some 4-5 receiver sets. It's an area that he doesn't excel in. When Elam plays at the line of scrimmage it typically leaves Evans with a lot of ground to cover. Look for a double move here and there when this happens. The corners will back off to about 8 yards. But they key on the quarterback. That leaves them vulnerable to a pump and go, or just a double move from a receiver. Watson will more than likely go with a lot of short passes to negate the speed of the defense. However, if he wants to put points on the board he has to be aggressive when the situation calls for it. Getting the team in short yardage situations will be key. Florida likes to be aggressive in those situations and Louisville has the weapons and talent to get behind this defense. If they end up in third and long a lot, this defense will make them pay.
KEY PLAYERS: By far the most balanced defense Louisville has seen this year. They gang tackle and they all play their role well. As there are no weaknesses, there are no key players either.
- Jonothan Dowling, who picked off three passes against UK for WKU, could be starting alongside Matt Elam if he hadn't been dismissed from the team.
- Matt Elam is a first team AP All-American. He's joined by Sharrif Floyd and Kyle Christy on the third team.
- Dan Quinn hasn't coached at this college level before. He has plenty of NFL experience, but the layoff could (probably won't) be a challenge for him as opposed to a positive.
- Will Muschamp is intense.