GAME NINE: VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Coach: Derek Mason, 2nd year (3-9)
2014 record: 3-9
Last meeting: Florida 34, Vanderbilt 10 (2014)
All time series: Florida, 36-10-2
Streak: Florida 1
The skinny: Back to oblivion go the Commodores of Vanderbilt after two straight nine win seasons under James Franklin. Derek Mason has his work cut out for him in terms of rebuilding the program, but it’s a multi year project. Vandy still hasn’t won an SEC game under Mason’s watch (plus they got absolutely housed by Temple in what was supposed to be a cupcake game to start the 2014 season), and now they’re forced to keep trying with what might be the worst offense in the SEC, one that only scored nine touchdowns in its eight SEC games last year. There isn’t a whole lot for Vanderbilt fans to hang their hats on except for blind hope, and the glass half full approach of “it can’t possibly be any worse!”
Returning starters: 8
The Commodores do return a lot of starters, but given how bad the offense was last year, I’m honestly not sure if that’ll do them any good. If Vandy is to have any success whatsoever on offense, they’ll need to find a dependable quarterback. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck to choose from. McCrary managed to throw eight picks despite only starting five games, while Freebeck completed less than half his passes and threw five picks despite playing even less than McCreary. The two of them combined to throw for 1,361 yards last year. Take your pick, Ludwig.
If there’s an area of promise, it’s the running back position. Vandy has one decent running back in Ralph Webb (912 yards last year), but after that, there’s a deep drop off. The Commodores are going to look for some production out of Dallas Rivers behind him, although Webb did earn praise from the coaching staff following spring practice. Vanderbilt also returns four starters on its offensive line. Then again, they also returned four starters heading into 2014 and the line was a disaster area last year, so I’m a bit hesitant to call it a strength this year.
Then there’s the wide receiver corps. Um, yeah. It’s ugly. Having a tight end as your top pass catcher is one thing when it’s Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, but it’s an entirely different story when it’s a guy who barely accumulated 500 receiving yards. Yet this is the situation with Vandy, who has tight end Stephen Scheu to throw to- and until further notice, nobody else. It’s so bad that Vandy had to convert a high school quarterback (CJ Duncan) to headline the group. Beyond him, the ‘Dores will be counting on some production from Ronald Monroe and Trent Sherfield. Or praying for it.
Offensive Grade: D+. Webb isn’t a bad running back by any means, but the offense as a whole has more work to do than can possibly be done in one year. Thus, the Commodores pose no real threat to what should be a stout Gator defense.
Returning starters: 7
Mason fired his defensive coordinator shortly after the Commodores’ dismal 3-9 season wrapped up, and then hired… wait for it… himself to replace him. He won’t have too much of a problem up front, relatively speaking, as Vanderbilt returns Caleb Azubike, Nifae Lealao and Adam Butler. So Vanderbilt could have a respectable pass rush, at least in theory, with its defensive line alone.
After that, though, things get kind of murky. Outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly isn’t bad as a pass rusher, but he doesn’t have much help at the linebacker position. Incoming freshman Josh Smith may have to assume a large role on the defense right away, if only because there’s nobody better. He’s got good instincts and versatility, which means Mason might stick him on the other outside linebacker spot opposite Weatherly. The idea behind that would be, OK, our defense may be mostly a train wreck, but maybe we can at least get a decent pass rush and have one saving grace as opposed to none.
The secondary is an absolute mess. A year ago, the ‘Dores surrendered 7.6 yards per attempt through the air, which easily qualified as dead last in the SEC. They do return one cornerback in Torren McGaster, but Mason will have to find another one to play opposite him. And again, he won’t exactly be digging through a gold mine to find one.
Defensive Grade: D-. I’m hesitant to give any SEC school an F grade anywhere, but this Vanderbilt defense had me tempted, for sure. A so-so pass rush is the one thing this defense can do even respectably well, and as young as Florida’s offensive line may be, I don’t think “respectably well” is going to amount to much success against it.
Vanderbilt wins if… Florida literally gives the Commodores the game on a silver platter. That means five turnovers, dropped passes and maybe even a blocked kick or two. Without getting all of those things- all of them, not some- no way Vandy beats Florida in the Swamp. Not again.
Florida wins if… They don’t do the things listed in the above section. It’s not hard. Just don’t turn the ball over, don’t make dumb mistakes, don’t play volleyball like DeMarcus Robinson did against Tennessee last year, and don’t get kicks or punts blocked. In other words, don’t play like a Muschamp coached team.
Three things to watch for:
1) Hopefully, the Gators’ fate will still be more or less up in the air by this point in the season. Meaning, they’ll still be in the running for the SEC East’s berth in Atlanta. Thus, Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier will have every reason to try their hardest to blow a team out of the water that’s more than susceptible to getting blown out of the water. Also, Vanderbilt won the last time they came to the Swamp. Maybe the coaches are different, but… ah, hell, who cares? It’s one thing to have mercy on a cupcake team you paid good money to take apart when the game’s out of reach, but it’s an entirely different thing when it’s a fellow SEC East school who humiliated you on your home field the last time they came there. Let’s see how mean McElwain can be. 40? 50? 60? 70 if they can get it?
2) Most of my other previews have the QB situation listed as an ongoing battle because they were written before the start of fall practice, but at this point, it’s Grier’s job to lose. Since the Gators figure to annihilate a very weak Vanderbilt team, though, I’m betting the backups will get a chance to shine. It may be Treon Harris’s last meaningful game as a Gator, assuming he follows the path of previous Gator QB’s who lose the battle for the starting job (Jacoby Brissett, Max Staver, Tyler Murphy, Jeff Driskel, etc.). He’s a good kid who rescued the Gators last year and salvaged something from a horrible season. Let’s see him go hogwild against a very bad Vandy defense to give him a proper thank you- meaningful playing time in a meaningful game.
3) If Vanderbilt has any X’s and O’s advantage against Florida, it would be their front seven against Florida’s offensive line. And they probably don’t have an advantage there. But with FSU and the postseason looming, this wouldn’t be a bad time for the Gators’ offensive line to really come together, and they’ll get a chance to against a somewhat decent Vandy pass rush. Playing Vanderbilt may amount to mere practice reps for most of the team, but Florida’s young o-line could really use them.
Vanderbilt overall grade: D+. Same old Vanderbilt. They’ll fall right back down to where they were before James Franklin arrived- a free cupcake game for every team in the SEC East. If this game were in Nashville, I’d be slightly more worried, but I have no real concerns about losing this game in the Swamp.
Overview: Vanderbilt poses no real threat to beat the Gators this time around, beat them the last time they came to Gainesville, and will be playing a team that, whether it’s the SEC East title or simply better bowl position, will be playing for something. It’s not going to be pretty.
I’m not sure Florida’s offense will have to do much, truth be told. Johnny McCrary is going to have a really rough day against a ferocious front seven that should manhandle his offensive line, and when he does throw the ball, one of the nation’s best secondaries will be waiting. Geoff Collins can just sit back and call pretty much any defense he wants to, because with the lopsided talent disparity between the teams, it really isn’t going to matter. So this is the time to work on new blitz packages and coverage schemes for him. That, plus a lot of points, is what we’re likely to get out of this game. In case the point hasn’t been made clearly enough, I’m more scared of East Carolina than I am of Vanderbilt. Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett will each explode for over 100 yards, Will Grier will have another solid day and the backups will have a field day in the fourth quarter.
With the Florida Gators, payback doesn’t mean “we beat you once and we’re good.” Florida owes Vanderbilt a little more than a harmless 34-10 drubbing in Nashville after what the Commodores did in the Swamp in 2013. They owe them a beating of epic proportions on their home field. And because of the serious deficiencies up and down the Vanderbilt lineup, they’re going to get it.
Projection: Florida 51, Vanderbilt 6