- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

AUBURN, Ala. — While the national media remain enamored with Florida’s quarterback duo of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, the second-ranked Gators (6-0) are halfway to a title-game date thanks to the nation’s most dominating defense.

When Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville last season, the thought was the coach’s spread offense would revolutionize the SEC. A year later, it’s Meyer — and not the nation’s premier football conference — who has been forced to adapt.

“A lot of questions were asked of me last year about what I learned about the Southeastern Conference. What I learned was you better bring your defense,” Meyer said after the Gators dropped LSU 23-10 last week to ascend to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. “This past week when I looked at the stats, the top four teams were all SEC schools.”

Those stats changed significantly after last week’s play saw Arkansas and Tennessee rough up previously sturdy defensive squads from then-unbeatens Auburn and Georgia, respectively. And now the Gators stand alone as the league’s — and perhaps the nation’s — best defense.

Consider the raft of defensive accolades Florida brings into today’s road test at No. 11 Auburn (5-1):

• The Gators have allowed just 16 second-half points this season, tops in the nation. Only Tennessee has scored a touchdown on the Gators after intermission. And 32 second-half possessions by Florida opponents this season have resulted in more than three times as many turnovers (14) as scoring drives (four). Nobody’s defense is as stingy or opportunistic.

• The Gators rank fourth nationally in rushing defense (56.8 yards a game), holding SEC opponents to just 2.0 yards a rush. In this season’s signature win at Tennessee (21-20), the Gators held the Volunteers to minus-11 yards on the ground, Tennessee’s worst total in 15 seasons under Philip Fulmer.

• The Gators rank second nationally in scoring defense (9.5), an even more impressive statistic considering Florida already has faced two of the nation’s most explosive offenses (Tennessee and LSU).

• Two Gators rank among the national leaders in interceptions — both cornerback Ryan Smith and free safety Reggie Nelson boast four picks apiece.

• An astounding 13 Florida players have recorded tackles for loss this season, led by All-American linebacker Brandon Siler (5.0) and All-SEC defensive end Jarvis Moss (4.5). And the squad is so deep that the team’s leading sackmeister, Eleanor Roosevelt (Greenbelt) product Derrick Harvey (4.0), doesn’t even start.

“We’re getting outstanding play from all three levels on defense right now,” Meyer said. “Our line is dominating, our linebackers know how to get after you and I don’t know if any defensive player in the country is playing as well right now as Reggie Nelson. We’ll need all that and more against an Auburn team which I think has the premier back in the league.”

Meyer is referring to Auburn tailback Kenny Irons, who was voted the SEC’s preseason offensive MVP but has yet to discover the form that made him the conference’s leading rusher last season. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound transfer from South Carolina ranks second in the SEC in rushing (102.8 yards a game), but the surprising struggles of junior quarterback Brandon Cox and the pass-protection problems of the Tigers’ veteran offensive line (18 sacks) have left Auburn’s offense one-dimensional.

The Gators’ offense is anything but thanks to the throw-run tandem of Leak and Tebow. Leak, the pocket-centric senior, is the SEC’s active leader in every quarterbacking category. And while his touchdown-to-interception ratio is as strong as ever this season (14-5), his total passing yardage (1,395 yards) is somewhat wanting for a player expected to be in the midst of the Heisman fray.

Much of that lag in productivity is because of the arrival of Tebow, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound freshman with a raw arm but a tailback’s elusive toughness. Like Alex Smith at Utah, Tebow is clearly Meyer’s pick to push the Florida offense into its spread-option future. Currently earning about a quarter of the offensive snaps as a run-first changeup to Leak, Tebow is the team’s second leading rusher (5.6 yards a carry) and last week accounted for all three of the team’s touchdowns (two passing and one rushing).

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves said of Florida’s dynamic duo behind center. “It gives coordinators fits because they have to prepare for two totally different styles.”

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