No. 10 Florida relying on D for ‘best opportunity to win’

Florida coach Jim McElwain insists he’s simply playing to the strengths of his team. It’s the polite way of saying his defense is significantly better than his offense.

Nonetheless, it’s working for the No. 10 Gators.

Florida’s defense is ranked second in the country and coming off a fourth game in which it held an opponent under 200 total yards . With the exception of one half — the second half at Tennessee in September — the Gators have been downright dominant on that side of the ball.

“You’ve got to adjust as coaches to give your team — whatever team that is that given year — the best opportunity to win,” McElwain said. “And that’s kind of what we’re doing.”

It essentially means Florida (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) can win without having to do too much offensively. It’s probably not ideal for a fan base that was spoiled by Steve Spurrier and Tim Tebow. But the Gators are seemingly best suited to protect the ball, be patient, play a field-position game and take calculated risks at opportune times.

The plan could be tested Saturday at Arkansas (5-3, 1-3), which is coming off a bye week that followed a 53-point loss at Auburn.

It’s an important game for the Gators, who sit atop the Eastern Division and need to win two of their remaining three in SEC play to secure a spot in the league’s championship game for the second straight season.

A road victory surely would help Florida garner a little more respect, too. Sure, the Gators are ranked in the top 10 for the first time in nearly a year. But consistent offensive struggles have them widely regarded as one of the country’s more overrated teams.

Losing to the Volunteers didn’t help, especially after cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson provided bulletin-board material before the game.

“I personally believe you earn your respect with how you play,” quarterback Luke Del Rio said. “We learned the hard way you can’t talk yourself up to be a great team. So we’ve kind of shut up and let our play do the talking.”

The defense has done that and more lately, helping Florida win three in a row.

Tabor and Wilson look like the best cornerback tandem in the country. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, the team’s top tackler and vocal leader, took his game to another level against Georgia while playing through an ankle injury. And now that the Gators are healthy along the defensive line, they have the talent and depth to match up with just about anybody.

Caleb Brantley has become hard to handle inside. CeCe Jefferson has grown more comfortable at end. And Jabari Zuniga, who has five sacks, has been the surprise of the defensive front.

Together, they forced Georgia into seven three-and-outs in 13 possessions. Two other drives ended with failed fourth-down attempts.

“It definitely shows us who we are,” Davis said. “It gives us a reassurance as to our identity. I mean we definitely know we’re a good team, you know. … We’re the Florida Gators. We need to prepare like the Florida Gators. That name holds a lot of weight, a lot of respect in this country.”

Maybe so. But McElwain was quick to defend his guys after managing just 231 yards against the Bulldogs. It was quite possibly an effort to help his players believe in themselves despite the offensive woes.

For now, it seems to be working.

“Look at the last couple national champions,” Del Rio said. “Even in the NFL, look who’s winning Super Bowls. They have great defenses. It’s hard to win when you can’t stop people. Everybody can score. The Big 12 probably leads the nation in scoring every year, but they’re usually not in the national conversation because defense is still of the utmost importance.

“From high school, college, NFL, you’ve got to be able to stop them. We’re lucky that we can do that.”

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