Florida survived a scare at Vanderbilt on Saturday, besting the Commodores 38-17 in a game that took almost four quarters to feel completely secure for the No. 6 Gators.

The Gators slept-walk through most of the first half, trailing deep into the 2nd quarter until a well-executed Kyle Trask 2-minute drill helped Florida take its first lead just before halftime. After Florida reclaimed the lead, it managed to extend it, largely due to its Heisman candidate quarterback, who finished the game 26-35 for 383 yards and 3 touchdowns. Florida led by as many as 21 points in the 3rd quarter before Vanderbilt clawed back within 2 touchdowns. The Commodores forced a Florida turnover thereafter, but Florida’s defense forced a punt, and the Gators held off additional danger from there.

Florida won, and in the end, that’s what matters.

But it was a flat, often listless performance against a winless Vanderbilt team that the Gators had no business allowing to hang around. For all the talk about Derek Mason’s job security, his young Commodores team outplayed, outworked, and often out-schemed a veteran Florida team that has talked openly about the College Football Playoff since vanquishing rival Georgia 2 weekends ago.

The Gators didn’t look like a College Football Playoff team Saturday.

The defense, which had shown improvement over the past month, looked dreadful against a Vanderbilt offense that entered the contest ranked 102nd nationally in total offense, 122nd in S&P+ offensive efficiency, 105th in success rate, and 109th in yards per play. The Commodores looked like a sleek offensive machine early Saturday, possessing the ball for over 9 minutes in the opening quarter and scoring on drives of 11 and 12 plays respectively. The Gators’ defense settled down for a couple of quarters, but the bottom line is Vanderbilt converted 7-of-15 3rd downs and was 1-for-1 on 4th down, extending a drive with the game still very much in the balance in the 4th quarter.

Florida’s secondary, which played so well against Georgia, continued the backslide that began against Feleipe Franks and Arkansas. True freshman quarterback Ken Seals looked like a veteran Saturday, slicing the Gators apart for 319 yards and 2 touchdowns before a late turnover sealed the Commodores’ fate. When Florida’s coverage didn’t bust, it couldn’t tackle, as Chris Pierce showed on this 58-yard touchdown jaunt in the second half.

All told, Florida missed double-digit tackles for the first time since its loss at Texas A&M, and often seemed to shy away from Vanderbilt’s physicality, especially at the point of attack.

Look, I get it.

It’s not easy to get up for an 11 a.m. kickoff against a winless opponent in a mostly empty stadium. It’s probably even more difficult when you have to tape up at the team hotel and arrive only an hour before kickoff because the visiting locker room is so small and antiquated it’s not really COVID safe. Being a little bit flat may have been more than a little bit predictable.

But that excuse isn’t good enough at Florida anymore. Not when Dan Mullen’s ambition is to build a champion in Gainesville. Not when Florida has an offense that can legitimately challenge to win Mullen and Florida their first SEC Championship since 2008.

Championship cultures are self-motivating. Championship programs are defined by consistency — at Florida, Mulen calls it “the Gator Standard.” Saturday wasn’t up to that standard, at least not in all three phases.

Trask is good enough to be the quarterback for an SEC champion. Florida’s wide receivers and tight ends, led once again Saturday by the electric Kadarius Toney, are good enough to win a championship.

Florida’s special teams remain marvelous, led by the nation’s best kicker in Evan McPherson.

But this Florida defense might not be good enough to win a Music City Bowl, let alone compete with Alabama, the most explosive, successful offense in America and the team likely waiting for the Gators in Atlanta in a month. If Florida thought it was tough to cover Cam Johnson, tackle Chris Pierce, or rattle true freshman Ken Seals, it goes without saying the likes of DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Mac Jones are licking their collective chops. Florida’s defense should remember how far it has to go to just be competent, instead of garnering unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for celebrating interceptions in games when they’ve given up 319 yards passing.

It isn’t just the Florida defense, either.

This offensive line can’t take 2 quarters to find a groove against the likes of Alabama. They aren’t even good enough to do that against Tennessee or LSU. That’s an improved group, but establishing balance and maintaining a physical identity remain challenges.

The Gators have time to get better. They’ll need to. First, there’s still the matter of clinching the SEC East. Wins in 2 of their final 3 scheduled games will do the trick, but without running the table, the SEC Championship won’t be an automatic Playoff play-in game for the Gators.

Can Florida play like it did Saturday and run the table until it reaches Atlanta? Maybe. Kentucky and Tennessee are challenged offensively and LSU is undermanned and has a secondary with more questions than the Gators. But it isn’t a given. Saturday proved how Florida’s margins remain small, despite all the program’s improvements.

Florida will need to be nearly perfect to beat Alabama in December. Saturday in Nashville, the Gators weren’t even close to perfect. It was good enough against Vanderbilt. It won’t be in the future.