FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The potency of Big 12 offenses emerged as the major plotline of the regular season. Now that bowl season has arrived, the focus has shifted to the quality of Big 12 defenses – or the lack thereof.
That makes Oklahoma's defensive players, well, a bit defensive.
"It's a lot of motivation coming into this game, hearing everybody talk about OU's defense," Oklahoma free safety Lendy Holmes said. "Then again, we're not going to let that bother us. That's just talk. They're not coming here and playing. We just let them talk and we just use that as motivation.''
The Big 12 boasts five of the nine highest-scoring offenses in the nation and four of the nine top quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
But the conference also has no teams ranked in the top 49 in total defense. Texas is ranked 18th in the nation in scoring defense, but no other Big 12 team is in the top 57. While Big 12 backers argued their defenses merely struggled against the conference's high-powered offenses, the league's members have allowed 30.8 points per game while going 3-2 in bowls. Big 12 South teams are 0-2 and are allowing 44.5 points per game.
By contrast, the SEC has six of the nation's top 22 teams in total defense and scoring defense. The SEC has gone 5-2 in its bowls while allowing 20.6 points per game.
"It's not the SEC vs. the Big 12," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "It's Oklahoma against Florida, the matchup on Thursday night. That's it. People can sit and debate about who's better on defense, who's better on offense. I mean, they didn't have a debate about Mountain West vs. the SEC the other night [before Utah's Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama] because it still comes down to execution. It still comes down to tackling. It comes down to staying on top. It comes down to getting off the field or converting on third down.
"It doesn't matter. It's for everybody else to debate. It's not for us. We're concerned more than anything else about how we match up with Florida. That's it."
The statistics indicate Oklahoma's defense doesn't match up well with the Gators. Florida is fourth in the nation in scoring defense, while Oklahoma is 58th. Florida ranks eighth in total defense; Oklahoma is 63rd. The Sooners also rank 99th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game.
"I can't speak to what people say," Florida offensive line coach Steve Addazio said. "I only know what I see, and I see a very good defense in front of me, really well coordinated. We're talking about the top two teams in college football playing each other, so they're going to be strong in every venue – special teams, defense and offense. The film [shows] that."
Oklahoma's defense can shut down high-powered offenses. Texas Tech is fifth and Missouri sixth in the nation in scoring, yet both teams scored just seven first-half points in blowout losses to the Sooners.
"It is [frustrating] to hear people say that we don't play defense," Oklahoma cornerback Dominique Franks said. "But we played against Texas Tech, which is probably the greatest offense, one of the best offenses in the country. We shut them down to 21 points [in a 65-21 victory].
"But that quarterback [Graham Harrell] still threw for about 300 yards. So if you look at the stats, yeah, you would say that we don't play defense. But if you watched the game, you would have known."
A whole lot more people will be watching the game Thursday.
Oklahoma plans to seize the opportunity by proving its defense is much better than the statistics suggest.
"It's not about how you start,'' Oklahoma strong safety Nic Harris said. "It's not about the middle of the season. It's how you finish. And right now we're finishing at the national championship game.
"Jan. 8, I'm pretty sure we're coming out with the win. All the critics will be silenced. All the stats will go down the drain."
Learning from his mistake
The BCS Championship Game represents a chance at redemption for Holmes, who was academically ineligible for last season's Fiesta Bowl. Without Holmes in the lineup, Oklahoma gave up 525 total yards in a 48-28 upset loss to West Virginia.
"It's the hardest thing I had to face in my college career and my life," Holmes said. "I feel like I just let everybody down who supported me, who supported OU."
Holmes, a fifth-year senior, has spent this season making amends. He has a team-high five interceptions this season and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.
"It means a lot," Holmes said. "I can finish with my team instead of not being here and sitting at home and watching this game. I'm sure glad to be with the team. That was a huge mistake that I made last year. Hopefully I'm making it up now. .... I feel real good."
Feasting on turnovers
The championship game pairing lends credence to the notion that fortune smiles on teams that take care of the ball. Oklahoma ranks first in the nation and Florida is second in turnover margin. OU has 32 takeaways and nine turnovers. The Gators have forced 33 turnovers while giving the ball away 11 times.
"Turnovers are the biggest indicator in winning and losing at every level," Venables said. "You can't turn the ball over. Some of our last few games in some of the BCS games, turnovers were a huge part of it."
Honoring his mother
After catching a total of two passes in his first two seasons at Florida, Louis Murphy has recorded a reception in 26 consecutive games the past two seasons. He has 36 catches for 611 yards to lead the Gators in both categories this season.
"How far has he come? About as far as any guy I've ever coached," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a graduate. He's a champion. He's going to go on to play in the NFL. I'm very proud of him."
Murphy's season is all the more impressive considering his off-field struggles. He has been dealing with the loss of his mother, Filomena Murphy, who died of cancer in February.
"I've really grown up a lot this year," he said. "Losing my mother has been rough, a lot of roller-coaster emotions, especially going through the holidays. It's been rough, but she's in a better place. She's not suffering anymore. … I've learned a lot about myself."
He's a better thrower than singer
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has proved he can do just about anything on a football field, but he has at least a couple of weaknesses off the field.
Asked to name something Tebow doesn't do well, his teammates mentioned that he doesn't tell good jokes. But the subject that came up most frequently was Tebow's inability to carry a tune.
"He's not a very good singer," Florida offensive tackle Phil Trautwein said. "He sings all the time."
That won't get him to stop singing.
"I heard 'American Idol' is coming around soon, so I'm getting ready," Tebow quipped.
Tebow says he sings a little bit of everything, but particularly country. He also declared himself a Frank Sinatra fan and said his favorite Sinatra tune was "Send in the Clowns."
"It's a good song," Tebow insisted over the laughter of reporters.