Florida vs. Vanderbilt: 10 bold predictions
Florida returns home to play in The Swamp for the first time in a month when it takes on Vanderbilt on Saturday at noon.
The Gators will be looking to bounce back from Cocktail Party heartbreak and keep their faint hopes of an SEC East crown alive. A more realistic ambition is to win out and earn an invitation to the program’s second consecutive New Year’s Six bowl game, an accomplishment that would certainly demonstrate Florida’s upward trajectory under second-year head coach Dan Mullen.
Vanderbilt has had a disappointing season, with the Commodores sitting at 2-6, undone by injuries at quarterback and youthful inconsistency on defense. Still, this is a team that beat a good (albeit schizophrenic) Missouri squad last month, and coach Derek Mason knows Florida will be vulnerable coming off the emotional loss to Georgia. The Commodores jumped out to a big lead over Florida a season ago, so a good number of the players on Mason’s team know they can play with the Gators.
Florida will need to be ready from the jump — sometimes a challenge after a tough loss and with a noon kickoff.
Here are 10 bold predictions for Saturday’s game between the Gators and Commodores.
1. Another slow start for Florida
The Gators were notoriously slow starters a season ago, but that changed a bit in the early part of 2019.
Florida has reverted to its old ways over the past month. In games at LSU, at South Carolina and vs. Georgia, the Gators have fallen behind. Florida has not scored a first-half touchdown in two games, and the Gators have not led entering the second half since playing Auburn on Oct. 5.
Some of that is about strength of opponent. Some of it might also be about playing away from home. But Florida has averaged only 6 points per game in the first quarter at home, and there’s little reason to believe it will suddenly explode early in Saturday’s game.
Expect another slow start for Florida.
2. 150 all-purpose yards for Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Vaughn was lighting the Gators up in Nashville a season ago before leaving the game with an injury. His departure helped slow the Commodores offense and allowed Florida to find its way back into the game, which the Gators eventually won, 37-27.
The Gators are well aware of how dangerous Vaughn is in space:
Florida has been vulnerable in the screen game (Miami, Georgia) this season as teams try to slow Todd Grantham’s aggressive defense. Look for Vaughn to have some success both running and passing, allowing Vanderbilt’s third-string quarterback, Deuce Wallace, to settle into the game a little bit early.
3. 100 yards rushing from Lamical Perine
These are supposed to be bold, right?
Florida’s offensive line has taken its fair share of criticism this season, much of it understandable. There have been growing pains for the inexperienced group. This week, the unit received surprising news when guard Chris Bleich, who had started seven games, left the program and entered the transfer portal. Bleich left for personal reasons, not playing time, but his departure is the latest blow to a unit that has found the millstone of SEC play tough to grind through.
I think it rallies Saturday and delivers an outstanding performance, one that frees up Perine to make plays.
It has been a tough senior season for Perine, an immensely gifted running back who simply hasn’t had much room to maneuver. Perine has broken the 100-yard barrier only once — against Auburn last month.
4. Florida produces two turnovers
The Gators were excellent at producing takeways early in the season, a trend that helped them overcome their own carelessness with the football.
The good news is that the Gators have limited turnovers of their own over the past month, with only 2 giveaways combined against LSU, South Carolina and Georgia.
The bad news is that Florida has produced only 1 turnover over the past month, forcing its offense to consistently drive the length of the field.
Back home, playing against a backup quarterback and with Jon Greenard healthy again, the Gators should be better Saturday — and force a couple of turnovers against a Vanderbilt team that ranks 84th nationally in turnover margin.
5. A 40-yard-plus reception for Kalija Lipscomb
It hasn’t been the year Lipscomb wanted when he elected to return to Vanderbilt for his senior season.
Yes, on a personal level, the NFL-bound wideout has been terrific, hauling in 32 receptions, good for 11th in the SEC despite playing in an offense that has struggled to throw the ball.
But the Commodores don’t appear bowl-bound for the second consecutive season, and Lipscomb will be playing with the third starting quarterback Vanderbilt has used this season.
That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a big play. But the Gators’ safeties and nickel positions have been vulnerable to coverage breakdowns, which makes it a decent prop bet that Lipscomb busts a big play at some point.
6. 4 sacks for the Gators
Florida’s defense entered the Georgia game ranked in the top 10 nationally in sacks and defensive havoc rating, per Stats Solutions (number of passing plays with a sack, batted ball or hurry). The Gators left Jacksonville with no sacks and minimal pressure on Jake Fromm.
Much of that was due to Georgia’s talented, behemoth offensive line. Another big reason, however, was that Florida’s All-America candidate defensive ends weren’t 100 percent, and the Gators lack big-time depth behind them.
Mullen said this week that Jabari Zuniga is still battling the ankle injury that has limited him for most of his senior campaign. That’s tough news for Florida if he can’t get right for the stretch run.
It won’t matter Saturday. Vanderbilt has been good protecting the passer (37th nationally), but playing with a new quarterback against a Gators defense happy to be back in The Swamp will be a bad combination for the Commodores.
Expect the Gators to pile up a few sacks.
7. Kyle Trask throws for 300 yards
Since stepping in for injured starter Feleipe Franks against Kentucky, Trask has been marvelous, leading the Gators to a victory over Auburn and standing toe-to-toe with Jake Fromm and Joe Burrow in Florida’s losses.
That he has played so well behind a limited offensive line and with minimal running game is all the more impressive. Trask makes good reads, delivers the ball into tight windows consistently and accurately (see Saturday’s throws to Freddie Swain) and has shown improvement in the pocket (one horrendous sack vs. Georgia aside).
He has thrown for 250 or more yards in three starts and eclipsed 300 at LSU. Expect him to have a mammoth day Saturday against a youthful Vanderbilt defense that ranks 123rd (third worst in Power 5) in pass efficiency defense.
8. A monster day for Van Jefferson
Jefferson, one of Florida’s senior leaders, had been relatively quiet in October until his acrobatic touchdown catch against Georgia.
Defenses tend to key on Jefferson, Florida’s most complete wide receiver, and force one of the Gators’ other passing-game options to beat them. Florida has plenty of talent at the position, so the Gators make the plays they need to, but it is a sensible strategy.
Expect Jefferson to bust loose Saturday. He has averaged more yards per catch (14) at home than in all games (12.4), and he has played his best football in November traditionally, including last season, when he caught 12 passes over the last month of the season with 2 touchdowns and an average of 15 yards per catch.
9. A CJ Henderson interception
Henderson has a career-high 9 passes defensed as a junior and continues to lead SEC corners in completion percentage against on all targets, per Stats Solutions (40 percent).
Still, there are odd whispers that he’s “overrated” or not the top-10 player he’s projected to be in Todd McShay’s latest 2020 NFL mock draft.
Put plainly, that stuff is nonsense.
You could have a lengthy discussion — and we will in this space next week — about whether Grantham is putting the corner he calls the best college player he’s ever coached in the best position to be successful. But you can’t argue that Henderson is a marvelous player.
A master at baiting quarterbacks into dangerous throws, he finally gets the interception he has been searching for all season.
10. Florida covers the spread late
The Gators will start slow, and this game will be far from decided at halftime.
Florida has been a solid second-half team, however, and will roll after halftime, grabbing a late cover of the 26-point number.