Florida’s defense struggled Saturday against lowly Vanderbilt, giving up 406 yards and 6 yards per play to a unit that entered the game ranked in the 100s nationally in most offensive categories.

The Gators only surrendered 17 points, but it was difficult to see the game as anything except a setback for a Florida defense that had shown improvement since being badly exposed in a 41-38 loss at Texas A&M last month. Vanderbilt’s true freshman quarterback Ken Seals lit Florida’s secondary up, throwing for 319 yards and 2 touchdowns at a 9.4 yard per attempt clip. The Commodores entered the game averaging only 6.4 yards per pass attempt, so Seals was 3 yards over his season average against the Gators.

Florida’s secondary numbers this season aren’t pretty.

The Gators entered Saturday’s contest allowing 7.7 yards per attempt, a number that ranks 77th in the country. That number would be far worse but for a terrific performance against Georgia, where the Gators limited the Dawgs to 112 yards passing on 29 attempts. Florida also arrived in Nashville playing poorly in obvious passing situations.

The Gators entered Saturday ranked 91st in passing downs success rate allowed and 96th on 3rd-and-long. Those numbers won’t be helped much by what happened Saturday —  Vanderbilt converted 7-of-15 3rd downs, including 4 “3rd-and-long” conversions, and were successful on over 60% of their passing attempts.

For a school that prides itself for being in the conversation as “DBU,” these numbers are easily the worst the program has posted in the secondary in three decades. The 2007 secondary is the only group even in the ballpark — and that group finished 59th in passing down success rate and 55th in pass efficiency defense. This Florida unit would need to post outstanding numbers against Kentucky and Tennessee (both anemic passing offenses) just to get into those very pedestrian national ranges.

This all begs the question — what’s gone wrong?

The truth is the answers are complicated. Florida has very good coaches on defense, and you won’t find many secondary coaches more well respected than Torrian Gray (corners) and Ron English (safeties). Some days — like Florida’s battle with Texas A&M — it’s the corners and the nickel spot that seems to have the most problems. Other days, like the season-opener against Ole Miss or Saturday against Vanderbilt, it’s the safeties who struggle. As soon as Florida appears to patch up one problem, they tend to spring another leak. Or at least that’s the way it must feel to Florida’s staff right now.

These struggles aren’t entirely surprising.

Before the season, we wrote that if Florida wanted to reach its championship goals and potential, the Gators would need vastly improved play from their safeties, particularly in pass coverage.

Unfortunately for Gators fans, they haven’t gotten it.

Donovan Stiner remains a force against the run, and he plays for Florida because he’s a walking brain on and off the field, well-respected for his leadership and smarts. But he’s limited in pass coverage, and we saw it again Saturday, when he took a poor angle on a post to Chris Pierce that went for a 58-yard Vanderbilt touchdown.

Shawn Davis plays as hard as anyone, but he takes huge chances that don’t always pay off, as we saw a week ago against Feleipe Franks and Arkansas, who made him pay for gambling on multiple touchdown throws.

Brad Stewart went through what seems like his annual struggle with off-field issues before returning to action against A&M. He lasted a couple of plays before leaving with an injury, and while he’s usually Florida’s best coverage guy, he was beat over the top repeatedly against Vanderbilt.

Rashad Torrence II, the blue-chip true freshman from Atlanta, has had his share of growing pains, even if he profiles as a future star. And while Amari Burney and Trey Dean aren’t listed as safeties, that’s probably part of the problem. The staff values defensive flexibility, but those former blue-chips profile now are tweeners without a positional home. The reality is that while Florida’s safety group now features more blue-chip players than at any time in the Mullen era, the 3 they rely on most have their limitations, and when they don’t execute, those talent deficiencies are exploited.

Compounding matters, Florida’s corners, who profiled as one of the nation’s better groups in the preseason, have been good but certainly not great. Marco Wilson has bounced back from a nightmarish game against A&M, but the senior nickel was expected to be the leader of the secondary and an All-SEC candidate. He hasn’t been that, even if he had some nice moments Saturday against the Commodores. Kaiir Elam is only a sophomore, and while he’s been good, he’s also had some eye control and alignment issues that have haunted him at times in 2020.

On Pierce’s TD, Florida wasn’t set well defensively on the play, another recurring problem for the defense. With players communicating poorly, Elam wasn’t aligned properly and Pierce made short work of him, getting inside on the post for an easy score, despite Elam making a strong effort to break things up late.

“On that touchdown I gave up, I was looking over, the whole defense was looking over for the play,” Elam said. “They were going fast. My linebacker called me over, because the tight end lined up out and the wide receiver lined up in. But we’re too busy looking for the play so we didn’t get (to) communicate, get lined up and they already snapped the ball. So I had to try my best to get the ball, but didn’t get there in time.”

He didn’t. He also didn’t look back to make a play, largely because he wasn’t quite aligned right and was too busy trying to get back into position. These aren’t little things — they are fundamental ones, and they need to improve if Florida is to have a chance in Atlanta in a month.

Even more concerning, Florida’s played badly against young and old quarterbacks alike, and they have been downright dreadful against the 2 very good quarterbacks they have played: Matt Corral and Kellen Mond.

That’s not anything new. A season ago, Florida’s secondary had the benefit of a corner in CJ Henderson that negated an entire side of the field. No matter. Against Georgia, LSU and Virginia (Henderson didn’t play vs. UVA) — the 3 times a season ago when Florida faced a quarterback who had been an all-conference selection or finished in the top 25 in the country in pass efficiency, Florida’s numbers were nightmarish. Jake Fromm, Bryce Perkins and Joe Burrow combined to torch Florida by completing 73.4% of their passes for 895 yards, 9 touchdowns, only 1 interception and a staggering average of 9.5 yards allowed per pass attempt.

That is simply not championship level pass defense. And it’s been worse this season.

Can it get better? Possibly. The talent, especially at corner, suggests Florida is underperforming. But the answers really may lie elsewhere. The pass rush, for example, could help. Florida had finally gotten back into the top 25 in sack percentage before the Vanderbilt game. They’ll fall out of it after Saturday, when they pressured Seals erratically and managed only 2 sacks. If Florida can pressure the quarterback more consistently with the front 3 or 4, it would help the safeties. But the pass rush hasn’t been consistent either, which makes the lack of typical DBU performance all the more problematic.

Mullen acknowledged it needs to get better Saturday after the game.

“Defensively, I was a little disappointed about the effort we got early. I want to roll guys early, and defensively we could not do that. We just had too many breakdowns and that was disappointing,” Mullen told the media. “I know you guys look at it, OK, is it a missed tackle? That’s easy. Is it a missed tackle because we had a poor angle on the ball, is it a missed tackle because we had a missed tackle, is it a missed tackle for poor effort, is it a missed tackle because we had the wrong guy in a situation to maybe make that play one on one, was it a good call? Everything that you look at. We’ll go study it with (Todd Grantham) and make sure we are doing a good job.”

Studying it is good. Performing better is harder. Florida will have to do the hard part to win a championship.