Gators’ defensive strength will be difference-maker vs. Hurricanes

During the 1990s, Florida was known for former coach Steve Spurrier’s dynamic offenses. His 12-year tenure netted six Southeastern Conference championships and one national title.

Gators coach Will Muschamp is going about things differently. Florida is all about defense these days, but the recent results in the win column look no different when compared to the Fun-n-Gun days of the Spurrier era.

Florida has won 13 of its past 15 games under Muschamp, who has built a team that reflects his personality. The Gators opened the season last week with a 24-6 victory over Toledo.

While most media members harped on a lack of big plays out of Florida’s offense, I came away thinking the Gators might have the best defense in college football. Even without three key players and two of its stars, Florida limited the Rockets to 206 yards total offense.

Linebacker Antonio Morrison, cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy and defensive tackle Darious Cummings return today at Miami after serving one-game suspensions. Also, starting running back Matt Jones will be back in the lineup after missing the Toledo game with a viral infection.

The Hurricanes have a legitimate All-American candidate in running back Duke Johnson. Al Golden also has a 3-0 spread record as a home underdog since taking over as Miami coach.

But none of that is going to matter because Florida’s defensive line will dominate. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris is going to see Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell in his face all day.

Expect the Gators to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball, producing enough offense with the running attack and a few plays from quarterback Jeff Driskel with his right arm and scrambling ability.

Most important, Florida should win the turnover battle. Its defense is going to set the offense up with good field position.

Go with the Gators as 3-point favorites to smash the Hurricanes with Muschamp’s brand of physical football.

Four more plays for today (home team in CAPS):

x South Carolina (+3½) over GEORGIA — The Gamecocks have won three straight over Georgia, including a 35-7 shellacking last season. South Carolina is 14-9-1 ATS as a road underdog under Spurrier, while the Bulldogs are 22-27-1 as home favorites since 2004.

Georgia, off a bitter 38-35 defeat at Clemson, lost leading returning receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the season with a knee injury. On the other hand, South Carolina captured a 27-10 win over North Carolina on Aug. 29, and the extra rest will pay dividends as Spurrier’s dominance of the Bulldogs continues.

x Western Kentucky (+14) over TENNESSEE — The Hilltoppers own a 10-1 spread record in their past 11 as road ‘dogs. The Volunteers are 5-9 ATS in their past 14 games as double-digit favorites. Western Kentucky beat Kentucky 35-26 in Nashville, Tenn., last week, and coach Bobby Petrino’s team had a double-digit lead for a full three quarters.

The Hilltoppers’ Brandon Doughty passed for 271 yards and one touchdown without an interception, while a trio of backs rushed for 225 yards and four TDs on 38 carries. Don’t be shocked if the double-digit ‘dog wins.

x MICHIGAN (-4) over Notre Dame — This is a revenge game for the Wolverines, who should get vastly improved quarterback play from Devin Gardner this season. Michigan is unbeaten in 15 home games under coach Brady Hoke with a 9-5 spread record. The Irish were fortunate to win a bunch of close games in 2012, but I don’t see this as a nail-biter.

x Duke (-4) over MEMPHIS — For money-management purposes, I want to be clear that I recommend my other games for more units. With that said, I’m not going to pass up the chance to fade this Memphis team at such an inexpensive price. The Blue Devils trashed the Tigers 38-14 last year, generating 500 yards total offense while giving up just 152. Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder will lead Duke to the cover.

Last week: 2-3 against the spread

Brian Edwards of VegasInsider.com and BrianEdwardsSports.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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