5 bold predictions for Florida-Vanderbilt
Florida returns to The Swamp Saturday afternoon for their Homecoming game, where they’ll take on Vanderbilt (12 p.m., SEC Network). The Gators will look to get their season back on track after being bullied a bit in their 20-13 loss at Kentucky last weekend.
Despite suffering a second SEC loss that severely dents their hopes of playing in Atlanta in December for the second consecutive season, Florida’s veteran leaders have insisted that the team has plenty to play for over the remainder of the season.
A homecoming game against a Vanderbilt team that hasn’t won an SEC football game since a 21-14 win over Missouri in October of 2019 would seem to be a great way to begin a season turnaround. But the noon kickoff, the continued sting of the loss at Kentucky, and the negative noise around the program following Saturday’s disappointing defeat, all will test Florida’s commitment to winning and getting better.
Here are 5 bold predictions about how the Gators will respond against the Commodores.
300 total yards and 3 touchdowns from Emory Jones
Jones has taken quite a bit of heat from the fan base for leading an offense that produced just 13 points at Kentucky.
Some of the criticism is warranted, but mostly, Jones was a victim of Dan Mullen’s extremely conservative play-calling.
Here’s Jones’ passing chart against Kentucky, for example.
Emory Jones' pass chart vs UK
79.3% Adj Comp
67.4% Depth Adjusted Acc
54.8% Success Rate
41.9% 1D+TD Rate
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) October 3, 2021
A cynic might suggest Mullen is conservative because of Jones — but the statistics just don’t bear this out. Florida threw downfield (attempts of 20 yards or more) 0 times against Kentucky. That isn’t due to concerns over Jones — or at least shouldn’t be. Against Alabama, Florida threw passes of 20 yards or more 6 times. Jones completed 2, missed 2, and drew pass interference penalties on 2. If he can do that against Alabama’s secondary, there’s no reason he couldn’t against Kentucky.
That’s just bizarre play-calling, and you can bet after reiterating that he “trusts Emory Jones to throw the ball downfield” at his Monday press conference this week, Mullen will be eager to show Jones can, in fact, stretch defenses over the top.
Expect Jones to hit a couple of deep balls and collect over 300 yards passing and running as he leads the Gators to a big win.
Carries — finally — for fan-favorite Demarkcus Bowman
Florida’s deep running back room started with 5 backs but has essentially been whittled to a 3-man rotation as the Gators hit the heart of SEC play. Each of the 3 backs, whether it’s Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, or Nay’Quan Wright, bring a little something different to the offense. Pierce is the banger, a top-3 guy in the SEC in yards after contact and Florida’s leading yards per carry guy (6.6). Davis is shiftier, faster, and has big-play capability as a runner and pass-catcher. Wright is the most elusive of the group, a terrific pass-catcher and a sneaky good blocker. It’s clear why they play above 5-star transfers in Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman.
But Bowman electrified fall camp at times with his explosiveness once he got to the second level, and his future is incandescently bright. Still, it would be nice if he’d get a chance to play this season. It might only come with the outcome decided, but I bet Bowman gets a longer look Saturday against Vanderbilt — say 7 or 8 carries, and wows the crowd a bit in the process.
Zachary Carter storms to the SEC sack lead with multiple sacks
Carter leads the SEC and ranks 5th nationally in sacks (6) as the season nears the midway point. Carter’s production and leadership have been a boon to the Florida defense, which after finishing 81st nationally in total defense a season ago has improved to a respectable 45th in 2021. The Gators rank 14th in sack percentage as well, and 20th in defensive havoc rate.
They square off against a Commodores team that has actually done a quality job protecting the quarterback (28th nationally in sack percentage against). Against Georgia, the Commodores used quick throws to try to slow the Georgia pass rush. This worked, as Georgia had only 1 sack, but also didn’t work, as Vanderbilt finished with 0 points and 77 total yards.
To beat Florida, the ‘Dores will have to be less conservative. That will open the door for Carter to post big numbers and storm to a solo lead in the SEC in sacks.
A multi-touchdown game for Jacob Copeland
Copeland was fantastic Saturday at Kentucky, catching 6 passes for 59 yards and getting open consistently even when the ball didn’t go his way. His growth since a slow start against Florida Atlantic has been extremely encouraging for an offense still searching for answers in the passing game.
The last time Copeland faced an overmatched defense was the USF game — he torched the Bulls for 175 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. He’ll replicate that type of game Saturday, helping the Gators find their explosiveness in the pass game again ahead of season-defining tilts with LSU and Georgia.
Too many empty seats in The Swamp from a frustrated fan base
Students complain constantly about noon kickoffs. They have to get up too early (i.e. before noon) and there’s never enough time to tailgate or work off the headache from the night before. But the students have been sensational this season. They have shown up on time and stayed late in all 3 Florida home games, and they were so loud against Alabama that Nick Saban challenged the Crimson Tide student body to replicate that noise. I expect that the Florida students will show up again Saturday — even if they arrive late.
The issue, oddly, might be with the alumni and other portions of the fan base.
Florida’s fans were a frustrated, ornery bunch after Saturday’s loss at Kentucky, which all but eliminated the Gators from contention in the SEC this season. They are mad and mystified by Mullen, questioning whether his floor and ceiling at Florida are basically 2 regular-season wins apart (8 and 10). They are confounded by Mullen’s loyalty to assistants who don’t recruit and his insistence on playing a quarterback they don’t think is the best one on the roster. More than anything, they see a dominant Georgia, an ageless Nick Saban at Alabama, and a last championship that now dates back 13 years, and they just want to win again. They are tired of program-building, buyout paying, “wait till next year-ing” and losing to Kentucky.
That makes a noon homecoming game against a lousy Vanderbilt team a tough ask.
Florida’s fans don’t want throwback uniforms. They want a throwback to the time when Florida won championships.