Defense may win championships, but somebody's defense is about to lose.
Alabama and Florida waylaid their respective Southeastern Conference divisions this season behind relentless defensive play. Florida enters Saturday's league title game in Atlanta with the nation's No. 1 scoring defense (9.83 points per game), and the Crimson Tide are ranked No. 2 (10.83), just as the teams are listed in the Associated Press poll and BCS standings.
"I think we've gotten better just because of the simple fact we had a lot of guys returning," Alabama middle linebacker Rolando McClain said, "and we've been playing with each other for two or three years."
It's the same story at Florida, which returned all 11 defensive starters from last season's national championship team that closed with victories over Alabama and Oklahoma. The Gators have allowed just 11 touchdowns all season, and two were interceptions returned for touchdowns at Mississippi State.
Florida has given up a passing touchdown at the rate of every two games and a rushing touchdown every four games.
"I feel like we've gotten better, especially as a secondary," Gators cornerback Joe Haden said. "We might not have as many interceptions as last year, but we haven't had too many big plays on us."
The Gators lead the nation in total defense (233.08 yards per game) and pass defense (143.17), rank second in third-down conversions (26.22 percent) and are eighth in run defense (89.92). Alabama is third nationally in total defense (233.92), second in run defense (77.08) and fifth in pass defense (156.83) and third-down conversions (28.92 percent).
Each defense allows fewer than 14 first downs a game and has more than 30 sacks.
"As far as speed and flat-out talent, they're very, very similar," Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. "What they do is not necessarily overly complicated, but what they do have is a lot of tremendous talent. You can replicate the looks, but it's difficult to replicate the personnel that they have."
Both defenses are anchored with standout middle linebackers -- McClain and Florida's Brandon Spikes. Gators coach Urban Meyer repeatedly has called Spikes, a senior, one of the truly special players he's worked with.
McClain is a junior but has earned the same respect from Tide coach Nick Saban.
"I think he probably affects everybody else on the defensive team as much as anybody that I've ever been around, because this is his third year starting," Saban said. "He has a very good understanding of the system and the scheme. He can make adjustments, and he can help other players make adjustments in the game with his leadership and his calls."
Saturday's game also will feature two of the nation's top cornerbacks in Haden and Alabama's Javier Arenas.
Florida was considered stronger at defensive end, but Carlos Dunlap was arrested on a DUI charge early Tuesday morning and will not play. Alabama seems to have the edge inside with the tandem of Terrence Cody and Marcell Dareus backed by McClain.
"I'm sitting at my desk watching them, and there is just no movement," Meyer said. "You're talking about, I mean, gigantic human beings. Our strength is really the interior offensive line, so I think it will be a good matchup, but the big issue is how much movement."
Meyer's defensive interior has a better rotation this time around with Lawrence Marsh, Jaye Howard, Omar Hunter and Terron Sanders after having only two healthy tackles a year ago. Yet he doesn't believe too much pregame conversation should be on that side of the ball.
After all, his quarterback, Tim Tebow, and Alabama tailback Mark Ingram could comprise half the contingent selected to attend next week's Heisman Trophy ceremony.
"This will be one of those games where there are two excellent defenses playing," Meyer said, "but I also think you can look at the stats and see that these are basically the top two offenses in the SEC in a lot of the categories. I know these defenses may be 1 and 2, but both of these offenses are very powerful."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...