A topic like this can be difficult to handle because it is difficult to define "winning" in this situation. Floridaís offense is decent, as is the Ohio State defense, but neither is great. If the Buckeyes hold the Gators to fourteen points, or if the Gators pass for 300+ yards, did either win, or did they just perform as a BCS-caliber team should against decent opposition? Iím not sure. But for my purposes, I define "winning" in this case as "doing more to help their team win." With that definition, I can tell you that this is a match-up the Buckeyes will win.
Statistically, the advantage goes to the Ohio State defense. The Florida offense is pretty average rushing (37th in the NCAA) and passing (28th), and respectable, though not excellent, overall (19th in total offense). They are also a mere 32nd nationally in scoring offense, at 28.85 points per game. Solid numbers, to be sure, but not exactly basketball on grass.
The Ohio State defense, meanwhile, has been more than respectable this season. They finished 15th in the NCAA in rush defense, 26th in pass defense, 12th in total defense, and first in scoring defense. Still not outstanding (except for the scoring defense number, which I, as an unbiased observer, must admit is pretty awesome), but better than the Gators finished in each corresponding offensive category.
But anyone who watched the Buckeye defense will tell you that these statistics are a little misleading, that theyíve looked vulnerable at several points in the season. I certainly agree with that. But there are two more categories where the Buckeyes stand out that are particularly relevant: interceptions and sacks. The Buckeyes are third in the NCAA with 21 interceptions, and eighth in sacks with 3.08 of them per game. The Gators, meanwhile, have thrown 14 interceptions, good for 73rd in the nation. Theyíre also 45th in sacks allowed. So tell me, who are you more confident in, the offense that throws a lot of interceptions and is just okay at keeping the quarterback vertical, or the defense that intercepts more passes than just about anybody and sacks quarterbacks at a top-ten rate?
I donít know for sure, but I suspect my colleague and opponent across the page is arguing that Ohio Stateís numbers came against inferior competition, while Floridaís stats came against tough SEC defenses; itís the argument I would make were our situations reversed. However, let me present a counter-argument: SEC defenses are no better than any others. In fact, an offense approaching competent is all it takes to win the SEC.
Look at the SEC championship game: it pitted a team (Arkansas) whose best quarterback was a running back (Darren McFadden) against a team (Florida) whose best running back was a backup quarterback (Tim Tebow). That isnít innovation; thatís desperation. Itís the sort of thing you do when youíve exhausted all other options. Itís the sort of thing that went out of style decades ago. Itís the sort of thing thatís good enough to win the SEC.
So on the one hand, we have the Florida offense, which was decent in a conference where that was all that was required. On the other hand, we have Ohio Stateís defense, which was also decent in a conference where that was all that was required, but which also forced turnovers and sacked quarterbacks with alarming regularity. Those just happen to be Floridaís two biggest problems. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Ohio State wins this matchup.
Of course, I get the topic regarding the Florida O as opposed to getting the hard hitting, quick and talented Florida defense. Such is life.
The Ohio State Buckeyes may have a Heisman Trophy quarterback with very dangerous weapons on offense, but they have a defense that hangs up there with the best when it comes to several of the major defensive statistical categories. They come into the game in the top 25 statistically in points/game (10.4), yards/game (273.0), interceptions (22), interceptions for touchdowns (4), rushing yards/carry (3.3) and rushing yards/game (93.5). Plus the Buckeyes have one of the best defensive players in the country in LB James Laurinaitis, who leads his team in tackles (100) and interceptions (5). Just looking at all of this you know it will take a pretty good performance out of the Florida offense in order for the Gators to come out on top in this one.
So what will it take for the Florida Gators offense to win the battle against the Ohio State defense? In the only game in which the Buckeyes surrendered more than 17 points in a game, a 42-39 win against Michigan, the Wolverines were able to establish a nice run game against the Buckeyes by going right at them with RB Mike Hart. In the end Hart tallied 142 yds on 23 rushes, including 3 touchdowns on the ground. This could be evidence, despite the fact that it was not a recurring theme all season for the Buckeyes, that a powerful rushing attack with a talented running back could earn you some success against the Ohio State defense...That is, until you look at the stats from most of their wins this season.
In wins at Texas and against Penn State, two of their bigger wins of the season, it was a lack of any kind of passing game that kept the Longhorns and Nittany Lions out of the game. What makes it so tough as to what the strength of the Buckeyes defense is would be that they won games in different ways this season - meaning that the key for the Florida offense will be to not let either a lack of passing or rushing do them in. In other words, a balanced attack will be needed to give the Florida offense the win.
Can they do it? As a Gator fan I think they can. Why? I'm going to go out on a limb and say because of a young man named Percy Harvin, and the way that he can break open any play at any time - similar to what he did against Arkansas in the SEC championship game and against Florida State the week before that. Percy Harvin has been great the past two games, including the game against FSU in which he only played one half due to injury. Over those two games Harvin had a combined 191 yards rushing on only 10 carries and had touchdown runs of 41 and 67 yards. And that isn't including his threat as a big play receiver. Harvin could be the key to the ignition of the Florida run game, and if they play their cards right can keep the Ohio State defense off-balance and fearing a big play out of the backfield, which with general football knowledge will tell you the passing game may open up a bit. All Harvin needs to do is match his earlier performances, easier said than done, but not impossible...and hope he, along with the other Gator backs, gets help from the Gators O-line enough to control the line of scrimmage and slow the game down.
One thing that will be crucial to Florida's success once they develop any kind of rushing attack with Harvin, DeShawn Wynn and anybody else Meyer would like to get involved, will be to use a combination of a medium range passing game and a couple shots downfield to the speedy receivers. Against Arkansas we saw this executed well, with Leak finding extremely athletic TE Cornelius Ingram and WR Andre Caldwell, along with taking some shots deep to Harvin and perhaps Leak's favorite target, Dallas Baker. With Leak finding a comfort level doing this against Arkansas and having a few weeks to continually work on it, I think that a good gameplan by Urban Meyer (who has been great at getting his teams ready after bye weeks) should equal some success through the air for Chris Leak and the Gators receivers. Leak will just have to watch out throwing near the Buckeyes CB Malcolm Jenkins - an excellent man-to-man defender with 4 picks this season - and towards James Laurinaitis, who had some big picks this season as well, but I think that the depth the Florida QB has to throw to will not create a problem in that department.
Balance. It sounds so simple, as it probably does in the above paragraphs. But it's what it will take for the Gators offense to win the battle against the Ohio State defense. Combining big play-makers and some smart gameplanning by the Florida coaching staff, I feel that the Florida Gators offense will be able to hold up their end of the bargain in beating the Buckeyes on January 8th. They've been doing "just enough" to win games this season (with the help of the D), and I think that the trend will continue.