College Football: BCS National Championship Preview

January 8th, 2009

The biggest game on the college football landscape is finally here, with the media days (should there really be a Super Bowl-like media day for a college football game? But we're all supposed to eagerly go along with the NCAA's assertion that these are student-athletes. When the schools and governing body treat them as such I'll truly believe that.) finally done and all the talking stopped. It's time for Florida and Oklahoma to settle this on the field once and for all. The Sooners have heard all week that the Big 12 doesn't play defense; that they'll once again fail on the BCS stage (they've lost their last four BCS games). The questioning of Florida's offensive ability hasn't been as fervent, but they have to deal with Percy Harvin possibly being a little less that 100% due to a high ankle sprain he suffered against Florida State.

Since their lone defeats of the season (Florida to Ole Miss, Oklahoma to Texas) these two teams have been dominant with the Sooners becoming the first team in major college football history to score at least sixty points in five straight games. You've also got the last two Heisman winners on this field, with 2008 winner Sam Bradford looking to avoid the "Heisman bowl jinx" and win a national title at the expense of 2007 winner Tim Tebow. Oklahoma was a part of the only other BCS title game to match Heisman winners, but they're hoping for a far better result. Matt Leinart and USC blew out Oklahoma and Jason White back in the same Dolphins Stadium that hosts this year's game. Oklahoma is hoping for a result similar to the first BCS title decided in this stadium back in 2001, when they were thoroughly dominant in a 13-2 win over Florida State. 

Urban Meyer's Gators are in search of their second national title in the last three seasons, and it would also make it three straight for the SEC. The water cooler talk will be all about which conference is superior: the SEC or the Big 12. The two leagues have met just one other time this bowl season, with Ole Miss knocking off Texas Tech in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Could there be any clues within that game when it comes to predicting the outcome of the FedEx BCS National Championship Game? That's a tough question to answer, even with the Rebels being able to pressure Graham Harrell despite a spread offense that did a good job of keeping him upright this year.

As good as Florida is up front, they don't have a Peria Jerry or Greg Hardy (although DE Carlos Dunlap does have nine sacks on the season) to put constant pressure on Bradford. But they're stronger than many think, and the difference between the SEC and other leagues on the defensive side of the football is their combination of strength and speed up front. Plain and simple, that Gator front four is going to have to get to Bradford in order to win this game. If he's back there with all kinds of time to pick out open receivers, this one will get ugly. The question on the other side is how well will the Sooners play on defense. They've got some mediocre rankings (62nd in total defense, 58th in scoring defense, 99th in pass defense), but if people are going to laud the Big 12 for its outstanding offenses then you have to take that into consideration when evaluating the Sooners heading into this game. 

No question Brent Venables' unit lost something when MLB Ryan Reynolds went down in the Red River Rivalry game against Texas. And it didn't help matters when Austin Box was lost just as he was growing into the role as a starter (Box will be available for this game and either he or Mike Balogun will start at MLB). But you have to keep in mind another ranking when talking about the Oklahoma defense: time of possession. Sam Bradford and company, due to their explosive nature, was ranked 70th (29:46) which means that opponents had a lot of time to throw the ball around in hopes of staying competitive. But the cynics will bring up the fact that Florida ranked 71st in time of possession yet was 7th in total defense, ignoring the fact that the Gators faced offenses that were far more ordinary than some of the Big 12's best. 

An aspect of this game to keep an eye on is special teams, an area that clearly goes to the Gators, and that would have been the case even if DeMarco Murray were able to go in this one. Florida is ninth nationally in punt return defense, allowing just 4.85 yards per return (they're also 9th in net punting while the Sooners are 82nd). Neither team is very good when it comes to kickoff coverage, but without Murray you have to expect a dropoff of some sort for the Sooners in the kick return game. And with a punt returner like Florida's Brandon James, one man getting out of his lane could be the difference between a simple change in possession and six points on the scoreboard. And keep an eye on penalties, not so much how many (both teams were among the worst in college football, averaging more than seven per game) but when they occur. Losing a big play (or giving one up) because of a flag can be demoralizing for the offending team. 

Keep an eye on these players: Oklahoma TE Jermaine Gresham and Florida LB Brandon Spikes

OK, I have to admit watching Todd McShay on ESPN earlier today in regards to Gresham, who has the athletic ability and size to make things very hard on the Gator linebackers. He may be the one offensive weapon on the field for the Sooners that defensive coordinator Charlie Strong will worry about stopping. As for Spikes, I don't expect him to see too much coverage time on Gresham. His job will be vital to Florida's success on defense: getting guys in their proper positions in the midst of that hurry-up offense that Oklahoma has run to near-perfection this season. If Florida gets caught in a moment of confusion (either someone doesn't know the play or someone is late coming onto/getting off of the field) they're in trouble and will more than likely give up a big play.

A few more key players: Oklahoma's starting MLB (either Austin Box or Mike Balogun) and Florida's running back platoon

Whichever linebacker gets the start in the middle for Oklahoma will have a tough task in front of him: Tim Tebow. Either Box or Balogun will have plenty of help when the Gators run the football out of their spread, but there will be times when either guy will be on an island with Tebow or one of the many talented backs at his disposal. Keeping Florida's big plays on the ground to a minimum will get them off the field and put the ball back into the hands of Bradford and friends on offense. As for those running backs (Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Moody, Kestahn Moore and Harvin when they hand off to him), they'll need to be productive in order to relieve some of the pressure on Tebow. Demps, Rainey and Harvin can flat-out fly and with one touch turn this game into a track meet that the Sooners most likely wouldn't win, and Moody has been playing better the last month of the season. 

My deciding factor: special teams. 

Maybe I'm giving Oklahoma's defense too much credit, but when a unit gets talked about in the manner that they have leading up to this game you have to assume that they're going to bring it. That's why the choice here is special teams. Oklahoma's Jimmy Stevens was 8-11 on field goals this season and 92-97 on extra points. Florida's Jonathan Phillips didn't see much more action, going 11-12 on field goals and 75-76 on extra points. But the kickers aren't the concern here; it's Oklahoma's inability to cover kickoffs and punts with consistency. That's something, along with punting (Oklahoma's Mike Knall averaged 36.4 yards per punt but it's not like he got many reps; Florida's Chas Henry averaged 42.8 per kick) that may have Sooner fans worried. It's been said before: you must be sound in the kicking game.

My pick: Florida 41-31.

As much as I like that chip that'll be on the shoulders of that Oklahoma defense, I like Florida a little bit more. Even with Dan Mullen calling his final game before taking over at Mississippi State, that kind of arrangement hasn't been a distraction for most of the teams going through the same setup this bowl season. And while I expect Bradford to play well, I think there is something to that Heisman jinx especially when you take into consideration all the demands that come with winning that honor. Urban Meyer becomes the first head coach to win two BCS national titles...but try not to hold me to that. Enjoy the game!