UF has to be better on third down in 2012

ESPN's GatorNation brings you the 30 things you need to know about Florida’s upcoming 2012 season. Over the next 30 weekdays, we’ll preview games, talk about trends, spotlight players and positions, and give you pretty much everything you need to know to be ready for the season before the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Offense is what kept Florida from being a better team in 2011.

The Gators had one of the nation’s better defenses last season. UF ranked in the top 10 nationally in third-down defense (second, 27.3 percent), pass defense (seventh, 166.8 yards per game) and total defense (eighth, 299.5 yards per game). But that couldn’t overcome an offense that scored just 27 points in losses to Alabama, LSU and Auburn, and scored 12 or less points in five of its six losses.

The biggest reason for the offensive struggles -- other than the injury to quarterback John Brantley -- was the Gators’ ineffectiveness on third down. UF converted just 32.1 percent of its third downs (51-of-159), which ranked 111th nationally (out of 120 teams) and was the second-worst percentage in school history. Only the 1979 team (26.1 percent) was worse.

The Gators were flat awful on third down in Southeastern Conference games, converting just 28.6 percent. In the winless October, UF converted just 11-of-51 third downs (21.6 percent), which included a 2-for-11 performance against LSU.

Granted, some of those numbers were due to the fact the Gators had to play freshman quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett. And two of those opponents did eventually play in the BCS National Championship Game. But it’s hard to be competitive when you can’t keep drives alive.

Florida has to improve significantly on third downs in 2012 to have a chance to win the Eastern Division. Somewhere around 45 percent is the goal. During Tim Tebow’s tenure, the Gators were in the 44-52 percent range on third downs, and Steve Spurrier’s best teams converted at least 40 percent of their third downs.

Don’t gloss over third-down conversion stats. It is possible to win games without being highly successful there, but it’s not possible to be an elite team without owning that category. The proof? How about looking at the teams that finished in the top and bottom 10 in that category last season.

The top 10

Wisconsin (54.7) -- 11-3 record

Georgia Tech (53.9) -- 8-5

Stanford (52.6) -- 11-2

TCU (52.1) -- 11-2

BYU (51.3) -- 10-3

Boise State (51.2) -- 12-1

Houston (50.7) -- 13-1

Oklahoma State (48.9) -- 12-1

Utah State (48.4) -- 7-6

USC (48.3) -- 10-2

The skinny: Teams averaged 10.5 victories and every team made a bowl game. Three teams played in a BCS bowl (Wisconsin, Stanford, Oklahoma State).

The bottom 10

Florida (32.1 percent) -- 7-6 record

New Mexico (30.6) -- 1-11

Memphis (30.4) -- 2-10

Idaho (29.2) -- 2-10

Kentucky (29.0) -- 5-7

Florida Atlantic (28.9) -- 1-11

Connecticut (28.5) -- 5-7

Kent State (28.4) -- 5-7

UNLV (28.3) -- 2-10

Akron (27.8) -- 1-11

The skinny: UF was the only team to finish with a winning record. Teams averaged 3.1 victories.