Florida Repeated and Undefeated: What Are the Odds?

A theme throughout the week, as well as everyone else's Florida previews, is not just asking whether Florida can repeat as champions but also as an undefeated team. Here's a look at some in depth particulars to see what the Gators' chances are at doing just that.

The History of Repeat Champions

Repeat champions are pretty rare. For this part, I will go back in time a bit for illustrative purposes. The last repeat champ of any kind of course was USC, who won the AP poll title in 2003 and the consensus title in 2004. The last consensus repeat champ was Nebraska in 1994-95. A lot of people know that pretty well.

Thanks to CollegeFootballPoll.com, you can see a list of champions only from the two major polls throughout the history of the game. The 1970s saw several non-consensus repeaters in Nebraska (AP '70, both '71), Oklahoma (AP '74, both '75) and Alabama (AP '78, both '79). The only other teams to do it in college football's modern era (post-WWII) were Notre Dame (consensus in '46 and '47), Oklahoma (consensus in '55 and '56) and Alabama again (both '64, AP '65).

If you're counting along at home, that means there's been only three teams to win back-to-back consensus national titles in the modern era: Notre Dame in the '40s, Oklahoma in the '50s and Nebraska in the '90s. The Notre Dame teams were under legendary head coach Frank Leahy, who won four national titles in five coached seasons (won it in '43, he served in the Navy 1944-45, then won titles in '46, '47, and '49). The Oklahoma titles came during Bud Wilkinson's record 47-game win streak. The Nebraska titles came in a streak of three in four seasons (though the '97 one was AP Coaches' poll only), and the '95 team is universally regarded as one of the best the game has ever seen.

Repeating as champion has happened eight times in the 64 seasons of the modern era, but only three times it was a consensus repeating champion. For Florida to pull it off, it would be a historic feat that would put the team in very lofty company. UF would also be the only team to repeat as consensus champion with a loss, though Notre Dame's '46 team had a tie on its record.

Reducing Suspense

Florida was a dominant team in 2008 to be sure. All of its wins were by double digits, it won every regular season SEC game by at least 24, and it became just the second team to win five SEC games by at least 30 points and the only to win six by 28 or more. It had one of the highest margin of victory averages in the country.

That all is a bit misleading though. Sure, some wins were laughers from the start. On some occasions though, the large margin of victory in games was a factor of running away with games late. To wit:

Opponent After… Score Was Final Score
Miami (FL) 3 quarters 9-3 26-3
Arkansas 3 quarters 17-7 38-7
LSU 2+ quarters 20-14 51-21
Georgia 2 quarters 14-3 49-10
Alabama 3 quarters 17-20 31-20
Oklahoma 3+ quarters 14-14 24-14

This table doesn't even mention the scoreless first quarter against Hawai'i in the first game of the season. This was not a team like Oklahoma, who bludgeoned teams to death by running up giant first half leads in most every game. The Gators did that only about half the time, using depth and persistence (and frequently, turnovers) in the second half to put teams away.

The players and staff have talked this off season about being less of a bend-but-don't-break defense and more of a consistent shut down defense. The 2008 (and 2006 for that matter) defense relied heavily on big plays, which were conspicuously absent during the 2007 campaign. If you want to go undefeated, your best bet is to be good on every down rather than good on some and not on others.

The defense did achieve that consistency during the second half of the season. It didn't allow a first half touchdown between the second quarter of the LSU game on October 11 and the first quarter of the SEC title game on December 6, except when backups allowed one to the Citadel when UF was already up 42-0. It wasn't quite there in the first half of the year though, particularly in the fourth game.

What It Took for Florida to Lose

Everyone knows that Florida lost to Ole Miss. However, I don't know if everyone realizes how many unusual things happened in that game:

  • Florida finished second in the country in turnover margin at +22 and lost just eight fumbles across its 14 games. The Gators lost three of those eight in this game alone, and was -2 in turnover margin for the game.
  • The longest touchdown that Florida's defense allowed to all other I-A opponents was a 19 yard pass by Georgia's Joe Cox. In this game, Florida allowed a 40 yard touchdown run and an 86 yard touchdown pass.
  • Florida was seventh in the nation at third down conversions at 51.55 percent. In this game, UF converted only one of eleven.
  • Tim Tebow passed for 319 yards in the game. Florida has won every other game in which he has thrown for at least 240.
  • Florida outgained Ole Miss 443-325 and held a 24-10 edge in first downs. In Urban Meyer's time at Florida, the Gators have lost only one other game when having an advantage in yards and first downs.
  • Ole Miss blocked an extra point and won by one. It was the only place kick of any kind Florida had blocked and one of just two place kicks of any kind that Florida missed.
  • To seal the victory, Ole Miss stopped Tebow on a 4th and short. Not only does he convert well over 80% of the time on 3rd or 4th and short, but two unusual things happened. One, he ran to his right when he nearly always runs to the left on these plays, and two, Florida left the edge rusher on the right unblocked as though the play was designed to go left.

Any one of those things would be usual enough on their own, but all of them happened in the same game. That's what it took Florida to lose last year, despite taking the best shot of a great Alabama team and facing the highest scoring offense ever after it had a month to determine how to attack the Gator defense. A whole lot of improbable things improbably happening on the same day.

What This Means for 2009

Since nearly everybody is back, it's reasonable to expect Florida to be roughly the same caliber of team.

Now, there obviously is some sort of continuum for beating a top team, where the better you are the fewer bad breaks you need to beat that top team. Alabama, for instance, probably would have only needed one or two of the breaks Ole Miss got in order to win. The Rebels, who were not playing up to their potential in the early season with losses to Wake Forest and Vanderbilt, needed all of them to eke out a one point victory.

If we were to assume that Florida will be exactly as good in 2009 as it was in 2008, then the chances of Florida going undefeated are pretty clear. If they bring their A game every week, then almost no one will be able to beat them. The '08 Gators were at least two scores better than everyone they played when they didn't do all the things listed in the previous section.

All the history at the beginning means basically nothing because the games aren't being played in the '40s, '50s, or 90s. If Florida can put distance between themselves and all their opponents early, unlike the six games I listed above, then they'll have an even better chance at running the table. Unless they face someone this year who is better than every opponent they faced last season, the Gators will pull off and unbeaten season should they avoid having lots big mistakes happen in the same game.

It's certainly not a lock that we'll see an undefeated Florida team this year, because it never is. If the Gators experience a rash of injuries on the scale that Georgia had in 2008, do all the boneheaded things they did against Ole Miss in 2008 again, or run into a team that's better than they are somewhere along the way, it won't happen.

This is what it will take to make history. Now it's time to see if they can do it.

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