If you watched Utah's opening drive in yesterday's Sugar Bowl, you had to be impressed by the Utes' surgical offensive strike on the vaunted Alabama defense: five plays, all passes; five completions; 68 yards; 79 seconds; one touchdown.
That's a hair under 16 seconds per play. It was a bold move for a team that had won ugly in big regular season games, and it set the tone for the rest of the game. Utah had four touchdown drives in the game--three of which covered at least 65 yards--and all were completed in less than two minutes.
As unheralded Utah quarterback Brian Johnson carved up Nick Saban's defense, it became increasingly clear that pushing the tempo had put the Tide D on its heels. That shouldn't be too surprising when you look at 'Bama's defensive tempo this year. The Tide ranked 85th out of the 120 FBS teams in defensive tempo at 27.384 seconds per play, more than a half second slower than the national average of 26.773. As such, Utah snapped the ball 11 seconds faster per play on its first drive than 'Bama faced on average this year.
The Tide's relatively slow defensive tempo is pretty much par for the course in the Southeastern Conference. In fact, 'Bama's defensive played at the second-fastest pace in the conference. While Arkansas ranked 20th in defensive tempo at 25.717 seconds per play, the other 11 teams all placed between 85th and 119th. Three of the five slowest defensive teams in the country in 2008--Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina--hail from the SEC.
National Rankings, SEC Defensive Tempo (seconds per play)
20. Arkansas (25.717)
85. Alabama (27.384)
88. Ole Miss (27.501)
94. LSU (27.657)
96. Georgia (27.676)
98. Vanderbilt (27.783)
103. Auburn (28.022)
104. Mississippi State (28.105)
107. Florida (28.216)
116. Kentucky (29.156)
117. Tennessee (29.171)
119. South Carolina (29.210)
(Arkansas' elevated ranking may be the result of playing Tulsa, the fifth-quickest offense in the country, out of conference.)
Looking at the national championship game, Florida's defensive tempo of 28.216 falls nearly one-and-a-half seconds slower than the national average. The fastest team Florida's defense played this year? LSU, which averaged one play every 26.214 seconds this season.
While Oklahoma's implementation of the no-huddle this year has been widely discussed, few observers have taken note of just how fast the Sooners are playing. Oklahoma's offensive tempo this season is 22.316 seconds per play, good for fourth-fastest in the nation behind Oregon (19.920), Houston (20.781) and Troy (21.479).
(SI.com's Stewart Mandel touches on this aspect of the national championship game here.)
For an idea of how OU's pace of play has affected its offensive performance, consider that the Sooners ran 975 plays through 14 games last season. This year, playing under clock rules designed to shorten games, OU already has run 1036 plays through 13 games. Oklahoma has averaged almost 80 plays per game, highest in the country.
So, what does this mean for Florida? The Gators are facing an offense that on average gets the snap off six seconds faster than their opponents have this season. That mean less time for audibles, pre-snap adjustments and, most importantly, substitutions. Mandel notes that Florida has relied on its depth and substitutions along the defensive line all season.
Of course, Florida certainly has the coaching and defensive talent to play at any kind of pace. Ole Miss took on a Texas Tech team yesterday in the Cotton Bowl with an offensive tempo of 24.577 seconds per play, three seconds faster than the Rebels' defensive tempo this season, and we saw how that turned out.
But stopping OU's running game and putting pressure on quarterback Sam Bradford may be secondary to just keeping up for the Gators on Thursday night.