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Surprising defense defining Florida's season

It's wide open. Unpredictable. Worth the price of admission (even at today's prices). Fearless to the point of being brazen.

There's speed, excitement and more speed.

Welcome to Florida football. Urban Meyer style.

The rage all preseason was Meyer's spread option offense and its penchant for short-circuiting scoreboards.

But the foundation for what's shaping up to be Florida's best team since Steve Spurrier left is a no-holds-barred, in-your-face defense that makes opposing offenses look like they're running in quicksand.

Meyer, hailed by some as the next offensive genius in college football, isn't too proud to say it, either.

Following Florida's 16-7 smackdown of Tennessee two weeks ago, Meyer left little doubt about the identity of his club.

The misdirection reverses are fun to watch. So are the shovel passes and option pitches. But make no mistake. The Gators' defense is the reason they're unbeaten, sitting pretty in the SEC East race and ranked in the top 5 in the polls for the first time since the Head Ball Coach was chucking visors at The Swamp.

"It's an identity we're not necessarily proud of," Meyer said after his offense was limited to 247 total yards against Tennessee. "But there's no B.S. in this program. I'm not going to stand up in front of the team and tell them something that's not true."

Nothing could be truer than Florida's defense right now, as the fifth-ranked Gators face their toughest test of the season on Saturday against unbeaten Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It's the first time the teams have met since the 1999 SEC Championship Game when the Crimson Tide rolled 34-7.

It's also a stage for two of the country's best defenses.

Florida is first in the SEC in total defense, passing defense and pass efficiency defense. The Gators are second behind Tennessee in rushing defense.

Alabama is second in total defense and passing defense. Both teams are allowing fewer than 235 yards per game.

Alabama coach Mike Shula, whose Crimson Tide finished second in the country a year ago in total defense, knows a good defense when he sees one.

He says the Gators are the real thing.

"They're real good against the run, and they've done a lot of blitzing," Shula said. "They will zone blitz and bring everyone -- linebackers, corners and safeties."

On top of it all, Shula said the Gators rarely tip off when and where they're coming from.

It's a defense built on speed. The tackles aren't massive, and the linebackers are bulked up safeties.

Cornerback Vernell Brown, all 5-foot-8, 165 pounds of him, might be the smallest position player in the league.

But the Gators' cornerbacks go nose-to-nose with opposing receivers, and co-defensive coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison love to blitz.

Even though Strong is a holdover from Ron Zook's staff at Florida, he's bringing in more people than he ever did when he was working for Zook.

That's an indication that the Gators were probably running more of Zook's defense the last few years than they were Strong's.

But with Meyer now in control, he's essentially turned Strong and Mattison loose. The Gators have a third defensive assistant, cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater, who's also been a defensive coordinator before. He was the DC at Colorado State from 1991-92.

Mattison was the defensive coordinator at Michigan and Notre Dame previously, and Strong coordinated South Carolina's defense before coming to Florida in 2003. The average age of the Florida defensive staff is 50.

"We have a lot of experience back there," Meyer said.

What was most impressive about the Gators' defensive performance against the Vols was that they were without their best lineman for the last three quarters.

Junior end Ray McDonald, a converted tackle, partially tore his anterior cruciate ligament in that game and isn't expected back until the Oct. 29 Georgia game, at the earliest.

Joe Cohen, who came to Florida as an oversized running back, has stepped in for McDonald with some help from Derrick Harvey.

Against Tennessee, Florida's cornerback tandem of Dee Webb and Brown took the Vols' receivers out of the game with their aggressive press coverage. The Vols' longest pass play was 19 yards.

Alabama's Brodie Croyle, though, has been more successful going down the field to a corps of receivers who've made one big play after another this season.

"With all due respect to Tennessee, they didn't have a great way of getting the ball to their terrific receivers and they are still struggling with it, where this group [Alabama] does," Meyer said. "This outfit has a way of getting that ball to the playmakers on the perimeter."

One of the wild cards for the Gators on Saturday could be nickel back Reggie Nelson, a newcomer from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He's one of the best athletes on the team and is as comfortable blitzing as he is in coverage.

The Gators have done a little more with him each game.

Meyer's spread option offense showed its teeth last week against Kentucky by scoring 49 unanswered points in the first half. Then again, it was only Kentucky.

Saturday's trip to Tuscaloosa will be a much better gauge of how far Florida has come offensively since its shaky SEC debut against Tennessee two weeks ago.

Either way, the Gators have themselves a defense.

And that's no Urban Legend.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.