FORT LAUDERDALE — There are numbers, statistics and analytics that back up the argument that Florida has had an elite defense this season.
Just don’t call up any videos of the LSU or Georgia games.
Those two blips are the reason the Gators are in the Orange Bowl instead of the College Football Playoff. On the other hand, the defense performed at a high level so often this year that the Gators earned this week in South Florida.
There is one final chance to show this is an elite defense and it comes Monday night against a dangerous offense.
“I think we have an elite defense, especially when we’re on the same page,” said linebacker David Reese II. “I think we’re probably the best defense in the country if we’re on the same page and everyone is healthy.”
And therein lies the key.
Injuries have been a major part of the storyline for the defense this season. The Gators have sent 19 different starters out onto the field this season and only four — Reese, tackles Kyree Campbell and Adam Shuler and cornerback Marco Wilson have started every game.
“We haven’t played with the same lineup all year,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “If you go back and look, we had our starters for the Miami game, and then after that, we’ve not had the same lineup all year.
“We’ve had a lot of guys hurt, and because you play well and you win, sometimes that doesn’t get noticed as much as when you don’t win.”
The missing man for this one isn’t because of injury, as CJ Henderson turned pro one game early. Henderson missed three other games this season with an injury.
“So we’re used to it,” Wilson said.
A strong showing by the defense will be necessary against Virginia and its deep roster of receivers. The good news for Florida is that freshman corner Kaiir Elam has played in every game and has four starts under his belt.
“Our corners, they’re all young guys,” Grantham said. “I think they’re excited that they get an opportunity to play now, and the work they’ve put in up until now, they get to go showcase their talents.
“Elam is a guy that got thrown in there of the young guys first. It’s very difficult to come in and play at an elite level right off the bat.”
Statistically, this has been an impressive unit, in part because if three shutouts, albeit over UT-Martin, Towson and Vanderbilt. Still, here are the national rankings with one game left to play for the 2019 defense:
Scoring defense … 8th.
Total defense … 9th.
Sacks … 5th.
Tackles for loss … 14th.
Interceptions … 11th.
Long plays allowed … 10th.
Ignore the man behind the curtain waving that paper with a couple of negative stats (60th in third down defense and 54th in pass defense) and the number of times the Gators left receivers wide open behind the defense, and you can make the argument for elitism.
“I think we’re an elite defense,” Campbell said. “It’s one of the things that make a big difference in a game like LSU and a game like Georgia. We don’t have that much room for error. Just a little mistake can cost you the game, one mistake, one play can cost you the game.”
LSU scored 42 on Florida and LSU scored a lot of points on a lot of teams this year. Other than that game, the Gators allowed only 11.9 points a game which would be the second best average in the country. And scoring defense is the gold standard for defensive stats.
Even with that LSU game, Florida is in the top 10 going into Monday night’s game.
“I think sometimes stats can get skewed,” Grantham said. “I think the biggest thing is being hard to score on and not giving up many points. If you do that, you have a chance to be in every game that you play, and that’s really the focus is not to give up points.”
That kind of is the point.
“It’s like any defense, we have our growing pains at times,” said All-SEC end Jon Greenard. “But once we’re all one accord and understand what we’re trying to do on every play and understand our opponent and attacking their scheme, it shows what we can do at the highest level.”