Game One, Massachusetts Minutemen
Game Two, Kentucky Wildcats
Game Three, North Texas Mean Green
Game Four, Tennessee Volunteers
|GAME 5: VANDERBILT COMMODORES (2015: 4-8, 2-6)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2015 offense||2015 defense|
|Derek Mason||7 offense, 8 defense||327 YPG/15.2 PPG||351 YPG/21.0 PPG|
|7-17, 3rd year||59%, 85% of stat production||117th/125th in FBS||30th/22nd in FBS|
Series history: Florida 37, Vanderbilt 10, 2 ties
Last meeting: Florida 9, Vanderbilt 7 (2015)
Synopsis: Thanks to Will Muschamp, Florida’s incredible winning streak over Vandy ended at 22 in 2013. But that’s not to say that the Commodores’ status as the SEC whipping boy has changed in the slightest, as it appears the life James Franklin injected this program with has worn off. Back to back bowl-less seasons have returned this program to the everlasting downward spiral they were in before Franklin came along in 2011. They’ll have home field advantage on their side, but the Gators own the edge in talent, coaching, experience and (realistic) desperation, as they can ill afford a screw up in this game with much higher expectations for the season- and the real tough opponents lurking.
The skinny: To their credit, the Dores did take small strides a year ago, but those strides still left them at 4-8, with the old goal of reaching a bowl game reappearing as the annual dream. Derek Mason’s defense will keep a lot of games interesting this year, just as they did last year. But as Gator fans know all too well, you need to have at least a mediocre offense, if not a decent one, or that defense is wholly worthless. And Vandy doesn’t have that offense, so they better either build one- and fast- or learn to start scoring on defense and special teams.
Offensive breakdown: Help is officially wanted. If the Dores are to have even the slightest semblance of an offense, they’re going to need effective play from their quarterback. First, though, they’ve got to find one. Wade Freebeck and Kyle Shurmur will battle it out this summer, with Shurmur’s five starts at the end of last year seemingly making him the favorite. But the Commodores are going to need more production out of whoever wins the job than Shurmur gave last year; 44-103 for 503 yards in five games simply isn’t good enough.
The lone bright spot on this underwhelming offense is tailback Ralph Webb, who’s accumulated 2,059 yards on the ground over the last two years despite a weak offensive line. Speaking of that offensive line, now the Commodores have to replace two of their five starters, including Spencer Pulley at center. The coaches are high on left tackle Andrew Jelks, who will be returning from a torn ACL, but there are still questions about this line as a whole. Vanderbilt surrendered 28 sacks a year ago, including five against Florida. Particularly because of the struggles they’re bound to have at least initially at the quarterback position, the line might find itself in over its head in pass protection.
Other than leading receiver Trent Sherfield, Vanderbilt is in dire need of finding some pass catchers. They’ll get some help from a trio of players who missed the entirety of the 2015 season in wide receiver CJ Duncan and tight ends DeAndre Woods and Jared Pinkney. But they’d better hope these guys can step up, because there’s really not much production behind them for Vandy to get excited about; Caleb Scott ranks as the second leading receiver with 339 yards a year ago. Granted, some of these less than impressive numbers are due to the QB issues, but a unit wide failure to get open is something that has to be addressed this summer.
Offensive overview: Other than Ralph Webb, the Commodores’ offense contains approximately zero known threats. There’s just too much wrong and not enough right to believe this unit is capable of much. Grade: D-
Defensive breakdown: The second year of the 3-4 defense was considerably better than the first in Nashville. Now it’s time to take the next step, and go from good in 2015 to great in 2016. There’s plenty of reason to think that it will, too, with four of five starting defensive backs and five starters in the front seven all returning from a top 30 defense a year ago.
The Dores will be especially experienced up front. Adam Butler, Jay Woods and Jonathan Wynn provide three upperclass returning starters on the defensive line, and they’re backed by one of the most underrated linebackers in the SEC. Zach Cunningham quietly picked up All-SEC honors at his inside linebacker spot a year ago after recording 103 total tackles and 4.5 sacks. And he’ll have plenty of help from outside linebackers Nehemiah Mitchell and Landon Stokes, who shared time last year but each figure to claim a starting OLB spot.
The secondary is the key to the unit. Mason, who doubles as the defensive coordinator, created the “Star” position to accommodate hard hitting free safety Oren Burks this past spring, which will allow him to creep up into the box more and act as a linebacker on some plays. Meanwhile, Torren McGaster and Tre Herndon will each reclaim their starting cornerback roles, and Ryan White appears poised to slide into the safety spot. It’s an extremely aggressive unit, but that aggression sometimes cost them in the form of getting burned through the air in 2015; the frequency of this has to be cut down to zero if this defense really wants to make the leap from good to great.
Defensive overview: Just because they play with the V in the star on their helmets doesn’t mean this defense isn’t up to SEC standards. On any other team in the SEC not named Kentucky, this unit could actually win some big games. Grade: B
Key matchup: Vanderbilt DBs vs. Florida WRs. There were times a year ago where after three quarters of locking down opposing wide receivers, the Dores would suddenly blow an assignment in the secondary and give some lucky receiver a free trip to the end zone. The chances of that happening are increased with a guy like Antonio Callaway just waiting to break free, and given their much talked about offensive struggles, it can’t happen even once if they’re to have a shot in this game.
The good news: Josh Dobbs, for all his question marks, is an exponentially better QB than either of Vanderbilt’s two competing quarterbacks. If the Gators can shut him down or at least slow him, they’ll have no problems silencing Freebeck or Shurmur. Also, you know, Vandy’s offense is terrible as a whole. Stop Ralph Webb, and the whole game plan crumbles. Good luck throwing on Jalen Tabor.
The bad news: Vanderbilt could run a pick back for six if Luke Del Rio isn’t careful. Also, the Gators’ offensive line could have some trouble with Vandy’s physical front seven in both pass protection and run blocking.
Vanderbilt wins if… they can effectively run the ball on the Gators’ front seven. Florida’s linebacker corps is good, but it’s thin, and if they get tired, Webb could gash them for a big run like he did a year ago. Well, OK, that won’t win them the game, but it’ll at least keep things interesting.
Florida wins if… they score touchdowns in the red zone. The Gators may not get too many red zone chances, but if they can punch it in when they do get them, they can put this game out of reach. The Commodores simply aren’t equipped to win shootouts.
Overview: Playing on the road in the SEC isn’t easy, and the potential for a letdown in this game is high given the emotional toll the Tennessee game figures to take regardless of the result. But Jim McElwain will never let his players take a team for granted again after last year’s near disaster in the Swamp against this same team. And I’d be much more worried about this game if the Commodores had a functioning offense. For the second year in a row, Vandy’s defense keeps them in the game, but this time, Florida will take advantage of Commodore miscues and pull away late.
Projection: Florida 31, Vanderbilt 6