Game 1: Miami Hurricanes
Game 3: Kentucky Wildcats
Game 4: Tennessee Volunteers
Game 6: Auburn Tigers
Game 7: LSU Tigers
Game 8: South Carolina Gamecocks
Game 9: Georgia Bulldogs
|VANDERBILT COMMODORES (2018: 6-7, 3-5 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Derek Mason||7 offense, 5 defense||411 YPG/28.5 PPG||420 YPG/25.1 PPG|
|6th year (24-38)||72%, 42% of stat production||59th/70th in FBS||84th/49th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 40, Vanderbilt 10, 2 ties
Introduction: Something felt weird about the Gators’ 21-3 deficit at Vanderbilt last season. Even down by three possessions, I just had this feeling that Florida was going to come back and pull it out. And they did, for one simple reason: once the Commodores’ early game energy wore off and the Gators stopped handing out goodies, the sheer talent disparity took over and Florida just dominated the game from that point forward. It’s dangerous to mess around with this particular brand of fire too many times, though, and that’s all Florida has done against Vanderbilt since Will Muschamp took the job in 2011. The thing is, unless the Gators totally fall flat in their first nine games and face Vandy with a record of 5-4 or worse, at this point in the season, this game starts the three game home stretch for Florida’s final approach toward a New Year’s Six bowl game. And with a payback game against Missouri lurking the following week and the always emotional Sunshine Showdown with FSU looming at the end of the month- not to mention a possible hangover from the Georgia game, win or lose- the Gators had better be careful in this one.
Vandy is more than likely to go with former Ball State signal-caller Riley Neal as its replacement for Kyle Shurmur for 2019, which is a good news/bad news conundrum for the Commodores. He completed 731 of 1,219 attempts for 7,393 yards in three seasons and change with the Cardinals, which is good; he also threw 46 interceptions, which averaged out to be almost one and a half per game, which is bad. He can use his legs if he has to, and all things considered should be the favorite to start for the duration of the season.
It won’t hurt that he’ll have KeShawn Vaughn (1,244 yards, 12 TD’s in 2018) to hand the ball off to. But Vaughn is going to require help, both from his understudy Jamauri Wakefield (353 yards, 2 TD’s) and from his offensive line. Up front, Vandy will be breaking in three new starters, meaning that Devin Cochran will have to be fantastic while the new pieces are plugged in elsewhere.
The strength of this offense, by far, is the receivers. Returning are the top three leading receivers in Kalija Lipscomb (916 yards, 9 TD’s), tight end Jared Pinckney (774 yards, 7 TD’s) and CJ Bolar (440 yards, 2 TD’s). All three have their own niches within the offense, too. Lipscomb is the big playmaker capable of scoring every time he touches the ball, Pinckney is the sure handed possession receiver and Bolar is sort of a mixture of both. If Neal is a good fit to run the show, these three could be quite the nuisance to deal with.
Offensive grade: B-. Neal’s play, as well as how much a drop-off the Dores suffer on the line, will go a long way toward determining how this offense ultimately fares. But the skill positions are as good as they can possibly be at Vanderbilt, and that’s good enough to make you look foolish if you eff around.
There’s no two ways about it. Vanderbilt has to apply more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, or they’re in for a nightmare of a 2019 season. Dayo Odeyingbo is back, as are Drew Birchmeier and Cameron Tidd (just one sack between them in 2018), so having to replace key contributors isn’t the issue here. Rather, getting more contributions from said contributors is the issue. In addition to the lack of sacks, Vandy’s run defense was third worst in the SEC behind South Carolina and Mississippi, and that cost them several games… including Florida.
The middle level of the defense requires a complete facelift. Only one starter among the 2018 linebackers (Dimitri Moore, who finished second on the roster with 84 tackles) is back at his ILB spot. And though Moore definitely has some potential, he’s going to need help. The Commodores will look for major contributions from guys like Alston Orji to help shore up the run defense and reduce that weakness from the level of “egregious” to “moderate.”
Vandy also has work to do replacing its entire secondary. Gone from the 2018 team are starting defensive backs Joejuan Williams and LaDarius Wiley (five interceptions, 16 PBU’s between them). The Dores did add former Wisconsin Badger cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams, and Derek Mason does seem high about the overall depth in the backfield, but some new faces are going to have to emerge- and shine- right away if the secondary isn’t going to let the entire unit down.
Defensive grade: D+. Mason is a good defensive coach, but he may have bitten off more than he can chew here. Vandy was bad defensively to begin with last year and now he has to replace the most reliable pieces of that bad defense.
Key Matchup: Turnover battle. Turnovers always seem like a cop-out answer for a key matchup, but they’re a cop-out for a reason: they’re a legitimate path to victory for even the biggest of underdogs. Florida is so much more naturally talented and better coached across the board than Vanderbilt that the Commodores have zero head-to-head on field advantages, but takeaways that either take points away from Florida or lead to points for Vanderbilt can negate that with frightening ease. And of course, part of that means that the Commodores have to hang onto the football and not give Florida the same benefits.
Florida key to victory: get Feleipe Franks into a rhythm early. Franks has a habit of starting games slow and either finding his groove just in time or not at all. Even against Michigan in the Peach Bowl, he got off to a rocky start. But if comes out firing and things work out early on, it’s lights out for the Commodores. Vandy doesn’t have the personnel in the trenches or the defensive backfield to frustrate him, and if he can make things happen, the Dores will find themselves in a hole they cannot escape from.
Vanderbilt key to victory: score touchdowns in the red zone. The Commodores aren’t likely to put together too many long drives due to their weakness on the line, so when they enter the red zone, they have to make it worth their while. Field goals aren’t going to beat Florida, especially not if their defense has as many issues stopping the Gators’ offense as I suspect it will.
Fun fact(s): No team has played Florida as evenly as Vanderbilt on an annual basis in the last quarter century- particularly in Gainesville. Even the best Gator teams of all time have been frightened by the Commodores, and the struggles have only mounted in the last decade. Florida, of course, usually wins- the Gators have beaten Vanderbilt five straight times and 27 of the last 28 times- but the wins usually come at the expense of fans’ blood pressure.
Since (and including) Florida’s first national championship season of 1996, the Gators have won over a third of the games against Vandy (8 of 23) by a single possession. Vanderbilt has held a lead at some point in six of the last eight games, and in the other two games- as well as the 2011 game preceding this stretch of eight games beginning in 2012- the Dores were within a touchdown in the final two minutes of the game.
With that stated, on the rare occasions where the Gators don’t struggle with Vandy, they blow them Commodores away by ridiculous margins. Since the schools became annual opponents in 1992, Florida has beaten Vanderbilt by scores of 52-0, 38-7, 45-13, 43-20, 71-13, 49-22, 42-14, 27-3, 55-14 and 34-10.
I really don’t like a lot of things regarding the setup for this game. Florida struggles enough with Vanderbilt as it is, but now this game is the week after the showdown with Georgia the way it used to be. Sure, Vanderbilt’s defense is shaky, but until they prove otherwise, I refuse to believe that this Gator team is immune to hangovers the week after a big game like Georgia. And that’s regardless of whether Florida wins that game or loses it. Making matters even more frightening, Vanderbilt has the skill position players needed to break off huge plays if the Gators are caught sleepwalking on defense.
But while that may be enough to generate some highlight clips here and there for Vanderbilt’s media department, that still isn’t enough to ensure that the Commodores come out with more points than the Gators after three and a half hours of battle. Florida may struggle for bits and pieces of the game, but as was the case last year, it’s impossible to believe that the talent gap wouldn’t eventually take over before it’s too late, because that talent gap is so large- especially when Florida has the ball. So it’s just as hard to believe that the Gators would actually lose this game at home as it is to believe that there won’t be some sort of letdown.
Now, Vanderbilt may be a smart pick against the spread depending on what the line is, but it’s just not fathomable to see Florida possibly losing this game against a team with as weak a defense as the Commodores have. Florida’s offensive line will eventually come together to create some holes for LaMical Perine, Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce to shoot through while Franks shakes a slow start to deliver a performance that’s not great, but more than good enough to get the job done. So while Florida’s not likely to look much better than they usually do against Vanderbilt, the end result is likely to be the same- Florida struggles, but wins.
Projection: Florida 31, Vanderbilt 20