... Tenderize Bradford.
"He's just chillin' back there," said a mildly disgusted Haden during that film session last Thursday. There was Bradford against TCU, loitering in the pocket for roughly five "Mississippis" before finding tight end Jermaine Gresham on a crossing pattern. A similar refrain was heard from affronted defenders in meeting rooms throughout the Big 12 this season: Look how much time he has! That complaint calls to mind Mark Twain's line: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."
Bradford is seldom disturbed in his place of business thanks to the extraordinary hulks working the door, so to speak. All five starters, including All-America left guard Duke Robinson, All-- Big 12 center Jon Cooper and duchy-sized left tackle Phil Loadholt (6'8", 337 pounds), returned to the Sooners' line in '08. With 170 combined starts going into the title game, they are "a dominant force," marvels Baylor linebacker Joe Pawelek, whose Bears lost to Oklahoma 49--17 on Oct. 4. "Every threat they pose—it all starts with those guys."
"When I first got in this business," says a crusty Big 12 defensive assistant who asked not to be named, "the question was, 'How's anybody ever going to stop the wishbone?' The same way they'll stop [this Oklahoma] offense: Whip 'em at the line of scrimmage, put some pressure on the quarterback and do the best you can covering. That's never changed." Do all that against the Sooners, he says, "and you got a chance."
The Gators' chance will improve if they can ...
... Weather the early storm.
So inimitable is Oklahoma's hurry-up that a defense can't possibly get a feel for it playing against the scout team in practice. "It's like getting ready for a triple-option team," says Patterson. "You can never emulate what they really do, so you have to try to survive the first quarter, until you figure out all their reads."
While solving those riddles, Florida free safety Major Wright will be continually reminding himself ...
... Don't be a sucker.
"Some quarterbacks just stare the receiver down, and you know exactly where they're going," says Wright. "This guy [ Bradford] can look you off, pump fake you, have you going one way when you need to come back the other way."
Will the Gators put heat on the 2008 Heisman winner? Yes, but probably not as much as they put on the '06 Heisman winner, Troy Smith of Ohio State. Recall how NFL-bound ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss took over the BCS title game two years ago, combining for five sacks. This season Florida lacks that world-class speed off the edge. Sophomore Carlos Dunlop, a 6'6" freak of nature who two years ago was returning kickoffs in high school, will be a consistent force someday, but he isn't there yet. While his front four is not "the most intimidating group," Strong acknowledges, "what they do exceptionally well is play as a unit, each understanding his strengths and limitations."
In that way they reflect a Florida defense devoid of superstars and one season removed from dreadfulness. Following the '06 national title season, four juniors left for the NFL. "All from the defense," points out coach Urban Meyer. "We knew there would be a void. The guys who came back were saying, 'Hey, we play Florida defense.' Well, no you don't. You were a backup. You're playing something, and I'm not sure what it was, but it wasn't Florida defense."
The Gators finished the 2007 season 98th in pass defense, 41st in total defense, first in mortification. They hurled themselves into off-season workouts. At Meyer's urging, they spent more time together off the field as well. They're more accountable to the program and to each other. On Mondays, the team's off day, the defense meets for video sessions led by linebackers Brandon Spikes and Ryan Stamper.