Last season's 7-6 record doesn't really match up with how well Florida's defense played. The Gator's allowed an average of only 300 yards per game in 2011. According to the NCAA, the Florida defense ranked eighth nationally.
The won-loss record from 2011 may make the glory seasons of 2008 and 2009 appear to be long ago. But from a defensive perspective, this team is close—very close to championship caliber.
The 2008 team allowed only 15 yards per game less and the '09 group 47 less. In comparing last year's results from the championship years, the most notable difference is in rushing yards allowed and turnover differential.
Last year, the Gators allowed an average of 133 rushing yards per game, while the '08 and '09 teams averaged 100 and 105 per game. The 2011 team was -12 in turnover differential, while the '08 team was +22 and the '09 team +7.
The difference in points allowed is seven or eight more, depending on which year you compare to 2011. Simply put, the difference in the 2011 Gator defense and two-championship caliber defenses of the recent past is a few less turnovers, along with allowing about 8 more yards rushing per quarter—that's it.
Being this close helps explain how the defense can get to SEC's best this season.
Florida runs a type of 3-4 defense. The most notable difference is in the buck linebacker / defensive end hybrid. This is a basically a linebacker who will at times line up at the end position.
This puts an additional player on the line, like the 4-3. Coach Muschamp tries to get the offense behind in down and distance situations by stuffing the run on early downs.
Often, the buck lineman will be on the line of scrimmage, playing much like a 4-3 lineman during the early downs. When they get the opponent in a third and long situation, the defense likes to bring creative blitzes to force turnovers or at least punts.
The defensive line returning this year is rated in the top five in the SEC by Lindy's and Athlon and ranked No. 2 nationally by Phil Steele.
At the time of Steele's ranking, he included Ronald Powell. He did note that Powell had an injury (ACL) in spring but would return eventually. Backing up the star-studded starters are a group of very highly-touted recruits, pushing for playing time.
All six of the top linebackers return this year. This group is very talented, deep and now, experienced. They should only improve from last season's performance.
The secondary, easily the unit that struggled most last season, returns six players that have eight or more starts from 2011. Why is this so good if the unit struggled the most last year?
Because the reason for the struggles wasn't talent. It was inexperience.
Now, the unit has talent, depth, experience and hungry young recruits pushing for time on the field. This will be one of the most improved secondaries in the country in 2012.
Florida doesn't have any area that one can call a weakness or concern. They enter the fall workouts with a defense that should compete for the top spot in the SEC. If the offense finds itself and helps just a bit more than 2011, the Gators may find themselves in Atlanta for a game in early December.