Florida at Vanderbilt: 3 keys and a prediction
Florida will put a 2-game win streak on the line when it travels to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on Saturday (Noon ET, SEC Network).
The Commodores will be looking for their second consecutive SEC victory after stunning then-No. 24 Kentucky in Lexington last weekend. The Commodores are much improved in Year 2 under Clark Lea, and they’ve shown it by winning 4 games after only collecting 2 wins a season ago. In close losses at Missouri and against visiting South Carolina, the Commodores were knocking on the door of their first SEC victory in 4 seasons and 26 games, and Lea’s team finally broke through at Kentucky, scoring with just 32 seconds left to topple the Wildcats. If they upset the Gators on Saturday, it will mark the first time since the close of the 2018 campaign that Vanderbilt has won 2 SEC games in a row.
As for the Gators, they are looking to improve their bowl standing by collecting a 7th win and finishing with a .500 record in the SEC a season after winning just 2 SEC contests on their way to the program’s worst SEC finish since 1979. A 4-win SEC campaign against a slate that featured a league-high 3 top-10 teams (Tennessee has also faced 3 top-10 teams in conference) would certainly spell progress in Year 1 under Billy Napier. It would also set the stage for a fascinating season finale at rival FSU on Black Friday, with a win likely sending the Gators to a quality bowl game.
Florida will have to take care of business against a confident Commodores team first, and while Florida has controlled the series, losing just once to Vanderbilt this century, the Commodores have played the Gators close frequently, covering the spread in 5 of the past 10 meetings.
Here are 3 keys to the game, along with a prediction.
Florida must continue to win the turnover battle
The Gators’ best football has come since halftime of the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville. The Gators rallied furiously against No. 1 Georgia, cutting a 28-3 Dawgs halftime lead to 8 points before falling 42-20. Still, making that game competitive seemed to light a fire under this Florida team, and the Gators have responded with comfortable wins over Texas A&M and bowl-bound South Carolina since.
A huge reason for Florida’s improvement? They’ve won the turnover battle consistently.
Florida has won the turnover battle 8-1 in its past 3 games, and the Gators now rank 11th in the country in turnover margin, at +8 overall. Seven of Florida’s 8 turnovers in that span have come since halftime of the Georgia game, a stretch which has seen Florida outscore its opponents 97-20.
Much of this has to do with playing better defense, pressuring the quarterback more, and making plays at corner. But the Florida offense has also stopped the bleeding, thanks to the improvement of Anthony Richardson, who has now gone 4 games without an interception, a span that includes both SEC Championship Game participants in LSU and Georgia.
In fact, until Nay’Quan Wright fumbled late in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, the Gators had gone 50 consecutive possessions without a turnover offensively. That’s an outstanding number and if Florida takes care of the football Saturday, it is difficult to see a path to victory for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt isn’t bad at protecting the ball, ranking 59th nationally in turnover margin at +1 overall. But the talent disparity with Florida suggests they’ll need some big plays to shorten the field and score enough points to keep up.
Can the Gators exploit another ground game mismatch?
Much like South Carolina, Vanderbilt struggles to stop the run. The Commodores rank 90th in the country in rushing defense and a dismal 113th in yards allowed per rush. This is a potentially decisive mismatch for the Gators.
Florida ranks 11th in the country in rushing offense and second in yards per rush, on pace to set a school record at 6.07 yards per carry. A week ago, against a South Carolina defense that came into the game ranked 13th in the SEC in rushing defense (Vanderbilt is 12th), Florida piled up 374 yards, including this 85-yard touchdown run by freshman Trevor Etienne, the Gators’ longest play of the season.
TREVOR ETIENNE. 85-YARD HOUSE CALL.
THE LONGEST PLAY OF THE SEASON FOR THE GATORS ? pic.twitter.com/An8QI2nRv6
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 12, 2022
The Gators are healthy up front, feature an All-American guard in O’Cyrus Torrence (responsible for the hole on the above play), and have 65 explosive runs of 10 yards or more on the season, the most in the country per attempt. Florida is also outstanding even when the holes aren’t there, as they trail only Ole Miss this year in the SEC in yards gained after contact.
Current top 3 UF rushers
1. Montrell Johnson Jr – 710 YDS (6.1 YPR)
3.41 AVG YDS After Contact
2. Anthony Richardson – 646 YDS (7.7 YPR)
3.52 AVG YDS After Contact
3. Trevor Etienne – 567 YDS (6.4 YPR)
4.22 AVG YDS After Contact
56 total runs of 10+ yards between all 3
— David Soderquist (@GettinSwamped) November 13, 2022
For Vanderbilt, stacking the box to make Florida throw is the obvious strategy. It is the one Clark Lea employed to slow the Ole Miss run game and hold the Rebels to just 128 yards rushing. It also didn’t work in that game for 4 quarters because Jaxson Dart made big-time throws and the Rebels ended up passing for 448 yards in a 52-28 win. A week later, the Commodores again stuffed the box against Georgia, only to be decimated by Stetson Bennett IV to the tune of 387 Georgia passing yards in a 55-3 Dawgs victory. Is Richardson up to that type of performance? Will it even be necessary?
Florida’s run game advantage and the ensuing questions the mismatch creates will decide the game.
If Florida is forced to throw, can the receivers avoid the drops?
Richardson’s numbers against South Carolina (11-for-23, 112 yards, 2 touchdowns) didn’t reflect the effectiveness of his performance. The completion percentage, below 50%, is especially cruel. Florida dropped a season-high 5 passes in the win over the Gamecocks, with each of the drops coming on accurate throws that should have been caught, as opposed to athletic plays where an errant pass nearly became a reception.
The Gators also played a young group of pass catchers extensively last week, with seniors Justin Shorter and Keon Zipperer both still hobbled by injuries. Florida’s best receiver, Ricky Pearsall, did haul in a beautifully placed Richardson throw for a touchdown.
— ?????? @???????? (@FTBeard7) November 12, 2022
Unfortunately for the Gators, that was Pearsall’s lone reception. Florida’s drops were spread out among 4 receivers as well, and with Ja’Quavion Fraziars also injured, the Gators relied on young talents in the passing game more than they likely anticipated. The sure-handed Shorter should return this week, and Zipperer is at least going to travel, even if he cannot play. That’s important, but even if Shorter goes, the Gators must avoid drops of accurate Richardson passes, especially if Lea’s plan is to force the Gators to pass.
Prediction: Florida 38, Vanderbilt 21
Vanderbilt’s offensive combination of Will Sheppard, who will be the next Commodores receiver to play for a while on Sundays, and Mike Wright, will end Florida’s shutout streak on defense. Like the Ole Miss game, expect Vanderbilt to hang around for a while. Lea’s team will also be confident after winning their first SEC game in 4 seasons last week. In the end, however, the Florida run game will take over, and the Gators will get just enough in the passing game from the likes of Ricky Pearsall, emerging talent Caleb Douglas, and the presence of Justin Shorter (even as a decoy) to pull away in the second half and secure victory number seven in year one under Billy Napier.