Game One: Charleston Southern Buccaneers
Game Two: Kentucky Wildcats
Game Three: Colorado State Rams
Game Four: (at) Tennessee Volunteers
Game Five: (at) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Game Six: Louisiana State Tigers
|VANDERBILT COMMODORES (2017: 5-7, 1-7 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2017 offense||2017 defense|
|Derek Mason||6 offense, 4 defense||351 YPG/24.6 PPG||393 YPG/31.3 PPG|
|18-31, 5th year||59%, 51% of stat production||102nd/95th in FBS||64th/90th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 39, Vanderbilt 10, 2 ties
Last meeting: Florida 38, Vanderbilt 24 (2017)
Synopsis: The prestige levels of the football programs belonging to the two top academic schools in the SEC differs drastically, but that hasn’t stopped the lesser of the two from giving the superior of the two the fight of its life in each of the last three years. The Commodores of Vanderbilt have not been an easy out for Florida under Derek Mason- Florida has only beaten Vandy by a composite score of 60-37 over the last three games- although they do appear to have plateaued around five wins a year. Put simply, Vanderbilt simply doesn’t appear to be ready to compete with Florida, Georgia or even South Carolina at this juncture in time. Meanwhile, the Gators appear to be on the upswing- and if they can beat LSU the week before this game as I am now on record saying they will do, they appear to be headed for a collision course with Georgia to decide the SEC East. And in what opponents have made a history of turning into a neutral site game in Nashville as the only remaining potential stumbling block prior to that showdown with Georgia, the Gators will know what’s at stake and be determined not to slip up.
Offensive breakdown: Vanderbilt should actually have the offensive line required to compete in the SEC. It’s the loss of star tailback Ralph Webb that’s going to make this an uphill battle for Vandy in 2018.
Kyle Shurmur had what qualifies at Vanderbilt for a breakout year in 2017, throwing for 2,823 yards and 26 touchdowns. He might have thrown for over 3,000 with anything above a historically terrible outing against Alabama, going 4-15 for a grand total of 18 yards. No, I didn’t forget a third digit, and yes, you read that right. Eighteen total yards. Even worse, it took him five SEC games to complete more than half of his passes. So he’s experienced, and has proven a capable quarterback against lower tier competition, but the level of play he’s demonstrated is shaky at best.
In the running game, all the hope falls on Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The Illini got 1,024 rushing yards on 217 career carries out of him in his two years in Champagne, so there’s hope that he’ll be able to thrive in his new home immediately. But even if he does, asking him to replace Webb is quite a daunting task. He’ll get help from backup Khari Blasingame, but don’t expect this running game to be nearly what it was even if he outgrows his serviceable backup.
But the real key to this offense is the pass-catching unit. Vandy loses top wideouts Trent Sherfield, Caleb Scott and CJ Duncan, and now they need to find their replacements. Kalija Lipscomb gives Vanderbilt one reliable target to throw the football to, and tight end Jared Pinckney gives them two. That’s not enough to have a functioning offense, and the Commodores are going to need guys like James Bostic to step into a larger role and thrive if the unit is going to survive.
Offensive Grade: D+. I wouldn’t totally rule out Derek Mason rebuilding this offense to a B or even B+ level in the future. But Vandy simply does not have what it needs on offense to be a serious threat.
Defensive breakdown: Vanderbilt was okay defensively a year ago. They weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible. Now, though, the Commodores have to replace seven starters on defense- and eight of the top thirteen tacklers from 2017, including Jonathan Wynn and Nifae Lealao.
Vanderbilt’s front line is a complete unknown. The only returning starter on the line is Dare Odeyingbo, which means that Mason and new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver have some mixing and matching to do at the other positions to find a rotation that works. Whoever they pick, though, have to commit to stopping the run. The Commodores were gashed on the ground last year, including 714 yards and eleven touchdowns against Alabama and Florida alone. So it’s not going to be easy for this line to be any worse.
The linebacker unit should be okay. Jordan Griffin and Charles Wright are both back, and both have proven a consistent ability to invade opponents’ backfields and apply some pressure. But that still leaves two linebacker slots that need filling. And the Commodores could really use some help from the middle level of its defense in fixing the aforementioned rush defense issue they had last year.
The closest thing to a strength this defense has is its secondary. Cornerback Joejuan Williams is among the most underrates cornerbacks in the SEC, and coaches have high hopes for LaDarius Wiley at one of the safety spots. But going along with the theme of the defense, the defensive backfield has two major holes to fill- and they’re going to need to find answers there soon.
Defensive grade: C-. Vanderbilt has a couple of players that will need to be game planned around on its defense, for sure. But as a whole, this unit just has too many pieces to replace to trust.
Key matchup: Florida passing game vs. Vanderbilt pass defense. It’s a key in a different kind of sense than usual for these preview. It’s almost a given that Florida is going to be able to run the ball, but this game is over the instant Florida has success through the air. If Vanderbilt’s front seven can force some negative plays, and its secondary can hold Florida wide receivers at bay, things could get interesting.
Florida key to victory: Score touchdowns, not field goals, in the red zone. The Gators have to seize their opportunities and not let Vanderbilt hang around. Fail to do so, and they’re in for a heart attack the way they were the last time they went up to Nashville.
Vanderbilt key to victory: Win the turnover battle. The Dores simply do not have the talent to match up with Florida anywhere on the field, but turnovers are every underdog’s best friend. Forcing a few in key situations- and just as importantly, not committing any of their own- could keep them in the game a lot longer than paper suggests they should be in it.
Fun fact: Thanks to Will Muschamp, Vanderbilt snapped the Gators’ 22 game win streak over the Commodores with an embarrassing 34-17 rout in the Swamp. However, Vanderbilt still hasn’t beaten Florida on its home field in three decades, going 0-13 against the Gators in Nashville since 1988.
Summary: It’s been well documented that Vanderbilt has caused Florida much stress and distress over the last several years. But here’s where it’s important to remember who Florida’s last two coaches were: Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, who along with Ron Zook share the distinction of accomplishing the least with the most talent in Gator history. That’s precisely the kind of stewardship that Vanderbilt typically does well with, as the Commodores are known to recruit smart, good hearted kids who are solid athletes, but not quite good enough to warrant offers from the game’s heavyweights. Those kids know how to fight though, and as the old adage goes: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The hope is that Dan Mullen will stop letting this happen.
Yet: despite once again owning the far more talented roster, Florida will be coming into this game fresh off an emotional victory over LSU (at least in my projections) with a battle against Georgia on the horizon that could be the difference between a good season and a great season. That right there spells “trap game,” no matter how severely Mullen is going to beat the team’s past struggles against Vandy into his team’s heads. And it doesn’t help matters that as of right now, Florida still doesn’t have an established quarterback.
But at the end of the day, Florida simply has too much talent and will have too much on the line from an outlook perspective to lose this game. One last time, Vanderbilt will scare the hell out of a better Florida team before Mullen can put his stamp on the program, recruit the treasure trove of talent the Gators are used to, and pull them far ahead of Vanderbilt- too far for these yearly nightmares to continue.
Projection: Florida 14, Vanderbilt 9