Should my predictions be correct to this point- and remember, they’re made with my head, not my heart- the Florida Gators will come into this game with a mindset similar to that of George Custer when he took his last stand.
A heartbreaking 27-23 loss the previous week to Georgia has the Gators reeling. At 5-3, Will Muschamp knows that his job is, to say the least, in jeopardy. I can’t swear that a loss to Georgia gets him fired outright, but it does put him in a very difficult position- he needs to win every remaining game on his schedule to keep his job. That includes a road trip to FSU. It’s definitely not going to be an easy task, but in order to end the season on a job-saving four game winning streak, he needs to take it one game at a time.
And that first game is Vanderbilt.
2013: 9-4 (4-4 SEC), BBVA Compass Bowl Champions (def. Houston)
Last Meeting (2013): Vanderbilt 34, Florida 17
All Time Series: Florida 35, Vanderbilt 10 (2 ties)
Coach: Derek Mason, 1st year
Who Are You?
Despite what happened last year, Vanderbilt hasn’t been too much of a problem for the Gators historically. Over the last 40 games, Florida leads 33-5-2, including 22 out of the last 23. Put simply, until the arrival of James Franklin in 2011, Vanderbilt was the league’s whipping boy, a free cupcake for SEC East teams (plus Ole Miss, their permanent cross division rival) that they didn’t get criticized for scheduling since it was just part of their normal SEC slate.
But under Franklin, the ‘Dores have taken some impressive steps forward as a program. After turning heads with a 6 win season in 2011, Vanderbilt broke into the top third of college football with 9-4 records in 2012 and 2013 alike. To cap it off, Vandy beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same year for the first time in program history. Think about that.
However, Franklin left for Penn State after 2013, and now Vanderbilt is lead by David Shaw protege Derek Mason. The attitude of his program has changed, but his desire to change both offensive and defensive philosophies, coupled with major personnel losses on defense figure to make it a rough year all around. I’m not saying he can’t build off of what Franklin did and eventually have success with the recruiting classes Franklin left for him (ranked 27th and 9th nationally in the last two years respectively), but we’re just not going to see the results this year.
Returning Starters: 7
The offense won’t be the problem in Nashville despite the losses of star wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause and QB Austyn Carta-Samuels. Derek Mason and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell plan on installing the West Coast offense, and the Commodores have the talent to make it work right away.
Patton Robinette got plenty of playing time as the backup last year, and he’s got two solid running backs to hand the ball off to in Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour. In addition, Vanderbilt returns most of its offensive line, including center Joe Townsend. So the running game should be OK, even with the departure of Wesley Tate.
The question is this team’s receiving corps. There’s definitely some talent, but there’s not much production among this group. Jordan Cunningham will step in and be Vandy’s big play guy. He’ll have help there from Latevious Rayford, who started to develop his own niche in the offense behind Matthews before going down midway through the season with an injury. Kris Kentera will step in and be this team’s dependable possession receiver. But these three guys have a grand total of 350 yards receiving. For their careers. So again, while they’re all very capable of breaking out, you’d still like to see some experience here.
Offensive Grade: C+
Vanderbilt won’t be terrible offensively, but don’t expect them to light up any scoreboards. This will not be the unit that costs them games.
Returning Starters: 3
Now here’s where the problems are for Vanderbilt. Derek Mason and defensive coordinator David Kotulski want to switch from a 4-3 front to a 3-4. Thing is, he doesn’t really have the personnel to run any kind of defense very well. All three returning starters are in the front seven, which is sort of good; Kyle Woestmann, Caleb Azubike will move from the defensive line to the outside linebacker positions and team with Jake Sealand to form what could be a decent middle level to this defense. If Sealand (45 tackles last year as a reserve) can step up and grow into a solid middle linebacker, Vanderbilt may not be too bad in terms of stopping the run.
After that, though this defense is a mess. The only other returning starter is defensive lineman Darreon Herring (84 tackles) and he has no proven help. Jakari Thomas moves inside from linebacker, and then it’s up to two freshmen, Zach Cunningham and Nigel Bowden. Unless this unit grows up very quickly, this line is going to get mauled in the trenches (and that’s something Kotulski can accept, as he knows that this is a strong possibility when he switches to a 3-4 defense with little experience on the line).
But it’s the secondary that could really cost Vanderbilt some games. There’s not a single returning starter back there. The players were highly recruited, but other than cornerback Paris Head, there’s absolutely no experience in the defensive backfield. None. Kotulski will have to pick a second cornerback between Torren McGaster and Darius Sims, and will insert Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh at safety. It’s the same old story for Vanderbilt’s defensive backfield- while talented, the lack of experience will cost them.
Defensive Grade: D+
It’s a good thing that this defense’s strength is at linebacker with a 3-4 scheme. But regardless of how talented the new players may be, the fact is that it’s simply impossible to replace eight starters on defense in the SEC. Look how much trouble Alabama, the best team in the country over the last half decade, has replacing six. Vanderbilt figures to have exponentially more trouble replacing eight.
Florida Key: Offense
Kurt Roper has to establish Kelvin Taylor early. If Taylor can have success against this defense, then Vanderbilt doesn’t have a chance, because then Jeff Driskel can start to use play-action to burn the Commodores either with his arm or his legs. The rest will take care itself, especially considering the height, speed and experience advantages the Florida receivers have over the Vanderbilt DB’s.
Florida Key: Defense
DJ Durkin’s defense has one job. Stop the run. Do not allow Brian Kimbrow or Jerron Seymour to see the light of day. Get some big push up front and stuff the running plays before they get started. I personally issue a dare to Patton Robinette: try to beat Florida’s cornerbacks, Vernon Hargreaves, Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, in one on one match ups when the Gators know you’ll have to be throwing it since your running game has been rendered useless. If you can, well, then Vanderbilt deserves to win.
Key Matchup: Jeff Driskel vs. Vanderbilt linebackers
Driskel torched the Commodores’ defense in 2012 with 177 rushing yards on just 11 carries. Vandy is well aware of his ability to run. Now the time comes for Driskel to prove that he’s able to throw the ball, too. Can he look off the linebackers, fool them into thinking he’s taking off, and then take advantage of a mismatch in the secondary? And on another note, can he be smart with the football and not be suckered into a stupid turnover?
What Does This Game Mean?
A loss and Muschamp is gone, and whatever shred of hope the Gators may be hanging onto in terms of the SEC East is gone as well. No further explanation necessary. That would put Florida at 5-4, and with games against South Carolina and FSU still looming, one of the proudest programs in the country would be staring at six or more losses for the third time in four years. Keep in mind, before Muschamp arrived, Florida had not lost six games or more in a season since 1979. Being responsible for the three worst seasons in the last 35 years would definitely get Muschamp canned. Vanderbilt was good in the recent past under Franklin, and very well may be again in the near future under Mason, but in the present, Vanderbilt is bad. Really bad.
A win, in terms of importance to Muschamp, is about the size of a slice of pizza to a starving person, but like that starving person would gladly take that slice of pizza and eat it gratefully, Muschamp would take this win. It is, after all, a road win in the SEC. Ask South Carolina how badly they’d have liked to get two more of those last year against two teams with a grand total of 13 wins.
The Gators would remain mathematically alive in the SEC East race (unless Georgia enters this week undefeated), but would need more help than it’s worth explaining. To keep it short, Georgia would have to have four losses, South Carolina would need two (Florida still has a game left against the Gamecocks, so they could beat them and have the head to head tiebreaker), and I’m not sure where all those losses are going to come from.
Florida’s going to come into this game desperate, and that counts for a lot. We know just how devastating a loss would be on so many levels, and because Muschamp connects so well with his players, and because they love him so much, they’re going to do fight tooth and nail to make sure he doesn’t get fired. Then take into account the complete facelift Vanderbilt must undergo on defense, and the losses of their two biggest playmakers on offense. Throw in the offensive and defensive scheme changes, and you’re looking at ‘REBUILDING’, all in capital letters, for Vanderbilt.
So now you know why the Gators are going to be heavily favored despite getting ripped to pieces at home last year (also, being fully healthy or even 90% healthy doesn’t hurt). Again, I’m confident that James Franklin laid down a winning blueprint, and believe that this Vanderbilt team could eventually contend for the SEC East. In 2015. Which is not this year.
No, this year features a Vandy team that’s a shell of the 2013 Vandy team, what should be a much healthier (and thus improved) Gator team, and another game that goes much the 22 games before last year went. That this year’s game will be played in Nashville will not matter the least. An enraged Gator team that’s seething over the previous week’s lost to Georgia and fighting for their coach’s job surprises a lot of bookmakers by taking it out on Vanderbilt, and thus blows the much weakened Commodores out of the water.
Projection: Florida 34, Vanderbilt 10