The Cocktail Party is behind Florida and there’s little doubt it will sting for a while. 

After Florida’s heartbreaking loss, senior wide receiver Freddie Swain insisted that, “This one game won’t define (Florida) and there’s plenty to play for.” It’s good he thinks that — the Gators need their leaders to focus the task ahead, beginning Saturday against Vanderbilt. 

Yes, an SEC East title and trip to Atlanta are likely gone (I’m sorry, but Georgia isn’t losing 2 of its final 3 football games), but the Gators can still win 10 games in the regular season for the first time since 2015 and make back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl games after nearly a decade on the outside looking in when it came to being invited to the SEC’s major bowls (Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Peach). 

Here are 5 things the Gators can show against Vanderbilt that would show this football team is ready to close strong.

Outstanding 3rd-down defense

It’s no secret that the defense has struggled mightily over the last month on 3rd down. 

After the Auburn game, Florida ranked in the top 10 nationally in 3rd-down defense. After Georgia converted 12-of-18 3rd downs en route to a 24-17 victory last week, Florida’s 3rd-down defense has fallen all the way to 73rd nationally. That’s hardly the “Gator standard.”  Saturday’s home contest against Vanderbilt would be a good spot to turn that around.

Look, no one is going to confuse Vanderbilt’s offense with Georgia’s. The Commodores rank 115th in total offense (6th-worst in the Power 5) and 101st in yards per play. Third down has been particularly excruciating for the Commodores, who rank 128th (of 130) in conversion percentage on the season.

Making matters worse, Vanderbilt will be playing its 3rd-string quarterback, junior Deuce Wallace, who has completed only 43.4% of his passes on the season and thrown 3 interceptions without a touchdown pass. 

In other words, this is the perfect offense for the Gators to face to cure their 3rd-down woes and build confidence ahead of a testy matchup with Kelly Bryant and Missouri next week. Missouri’s history of lighting up this Gators defense doesn’t need to be revisited. To win in Columbia next week, the Gators simply must play better defense on third down.

A commitment to running the football

Hear me out.

Yes, the Gators have a game to win, and they can’t just go out and “try stuff” against Vanderbilt as if it is a scrimmage. That would show a level of disrespect for the opponent and after falling far behind Vanderbilt a season ago, the Gators can’t afford to be laissez-faire about their approach to the Commodores.

That said, the Gators fell behind Georgia last Saturday and mostly abandoned the traditional run game, a staple of Dan Mullen’s spread offense

Lamical Perine finished the game averaging about 5 yards per carry on only 7 touches, meaning the Gators deprived one of their best playmakers of a chance to influence the game and abandoned a part of their offense that could have run clock and given their defense a rest. 

To be fair, Florida’s offensive line hasn’t inspired much confidence in the run game this season. The Gators rank 99th in yards per rush attempt and 107th in rushing offense, both historic lows for any Mullen offense (Miss State never finished worse than 67th in yards per rushing attempt under Mullen).

But Florida has avoided the mistake of abandoning the run in other games, including ones where they were behind (Kentucky, South Carolina). In the end, the commitment to at least trying to run the ball has helped Florida maintain the threat of balance — and in 3 games (Auburn, Kentucky, South Carolina) the Gators have hit big run plays late. 

A healthy dose of Lamical Perine in The Swamp Saturday seems to be in order.

Where are the takeaways?

Not to look ahead to the Missouri game again but …

A big reason Missouri has lost 3 football games this season is it has gotten careless with the football. If the Gators are to vanquish their Missouri demons next weekend, they’ll need takeaways.

Early in the season, the Gators were terrific at forcing turnovers. Following the win over Auburn, Florida ranked in the top 15 nationally in takeaways. The Gators have produced only 1 turnover in the 3 games since. 

Mullen’s offense under Kyle Trask has done an admirable job driving the length of the field all month, keeping the team in games. A little help and a short field every now and then would go a long way to getting the Gators back on the winning track.

Explosive plays in the passing game

Florida’s hit two 20+ yard passes for touchdowns against South Carolina, but has otherwise been relatively limited from a “chunk play” perspective over the past month.

Against LSU, the Tigers did an outstanding job of making Trask and the Gators drive the length of the field to score, with Florida’s long pass a 28-yard wheel route to Kyle Pitts. Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense was likewise content to keep the game in front of them. Yes — Van Jefferson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass in the 4th quarter. Florida’s longest pass play otherwise was a 29-yard catch and run to Kyle Pitts in the 1st half. The Gators had to settle for lengthy, time-consuming scoring drives — eventually running out of time.

Trask doesn’t have the live arm downfield that Feleipe Franks has. This isn’t a secret. But Trask has a deceptively strong arm and Florida has downfield weapons (Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland, Tyrie Cleveland, Joshua Hammond) that they need to find ways to involve. Grimes, in particular, is a player Mullen pointed out has progressed and should be more involved.

It won’t be easy. Vanderbilt is improving dramatically on defense, and shut down a high-octane Missouri offense earlier this month.

“They play tough, physical defense,” Mullen said Monday. “They struggled early in the season, but (Derek Mason) has them growing and maturing and they are playing better now than they did early in the season. They have very good talent on that side of the ball and they identify and evaluate talent well. They coach them and put them in positions to succeed.”

No matter. Florida needs to rise to the occasion and find the explosiveness they had early in the season again.

A loud and proud Swamp

It won’t be a full Swamp. I’m not that naive. It’s a struggling Vanderbilt team and another noon kick — seriously, what did Scott Stricklin do to Greg Sankey to deserve so many noon kickoffs?

But after a month on the road and a heartbreaking loss to Georgia, it will be good for the Gators to get back home. Recruits will be on hand, Florida has a team that has owned them on the schedule next week and a loud, proud Swamp will impress recruits and could help push the Gators forward to a strong finish.