The Gators are rising. Vanderbilt? Not so much.
The Florida Gators are 5-1, rising and roaring to life after a mostly mediocre three years under Jim McElwain that ended with a moribund 2017 season.
The Vanderbilt Commodores are 3-3, nearly a month removed from a remarkable close call at Notre Dame, and treading water — barely. Vandy’s 1-3 over its last four games, has claimed wins over just two directional Volunteer State schools and Nevada this year, and is drifting back toward the irrelevance that James Franklin made a memory and Derek Mason was hired to stave off.
Those two teams meet in Nashville this Saturday (noon Eastern, ESPN or WatchESPN or ESPN+) — oh, and Florida hasn’t lost at Vanderbilt in decades.
Why is the spread on this game just a touchdown, exactly?
When Florida has the ball
The Gators have made “Getting it done” their offensive identity in 2018 thus far, rarely doing the spectacular but usually doing enough.
The passing game? It’s effective when it needs to be. Feleipe Franks completed under 50 percent of his throws against LSU last Saturday, marking the sixth start of his young Florida career in which he missed on at least half of his throws — but this was Florida’s first win over a Power Five opponent in those games, and Franks averaged better than 15 yards a completion thanks partly to a couple of beautiful deep throws to Josh Hammond. Those throws led to very different drive outcomes — a Franks interception and a Florida touchdown — but Franks has shown he is capable of them and of making savvy throwaways more often than stupid throws, and Dan Mullen continues to tailor Florida’s offense to his strengths rather than his weaknesses.
It helps that Florida has cultivated a deep group of receivers and tight ends for Franks to utilize — one that Franks himself joined with a catch on a trick play against LSU. Florida only has two receivers (Freddie Swain and Hammond) with 200 receiving yards on the year, but the Gators have nine with at least four catches. And Franks’s 14 passing touchdowns have gone to seven different players, with no player snagging more than the three that Swain, Van Jefferson, and former afterthought Moral Stephens have each reeled in.
Florida doesn’t get enough consistency from Franks — or, as or more importantly, its offensive line — to make explosive passing the bread and butter of its offense, but there’s enough competency there to toast defenses on occasion.
Similarly, Florida’s running game is very good without being particularly explosive. Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett finally took back the top two spots on the season rushing yards list from Dameon Pierce against LSU, and both made excellent plays on the ground, with Perine being the recipient of multiple clever fake read speed options and Scarlett doing some pounding running between the tackles.
Florida has also gotten better at executing John Hevesy’s pull-heavy run-blocking schemes as the year has worn on, and the reintroduction of guard Brett Heggie on the line has bolstered the Gators up front.
That all spells trouble for Vanderbilt, which is undersized up front and has paid dearly for it. The Commodores are a woeful 118th nationally in defensive Success Rate, meaning that opposing teams have remained on schedule like the train that runs beyond Vandy’s baseball stadium, and they’re No. 123 in defensive Opportunity Rate, meaning that Perine, Scarlett, and Pierce should have plenty of holes to run through on Saturday.
But Vandy’s pass defense isn’t great, either, giving up 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns through six games, and the ‘Dores were lit up by Tennessee State — led by receiver Treon Harris, of all people — about as well as they were by South Carolina and Georgia. Vandy was able to keep Notre Dame in check, yes, but the Irish were still starting senior Brandon Wimbush then, and have improved measurably since benching him for Ian Book; the more relevant data points for Saturday’s game are probably the three games since, in which the Commodores are giving up just over 290 yards through the air.
Franks has never thrown for 250 yards in a game, much less 300 — but he might have a chance to do that this Saturday.
Big edge: Florida
When Vanderbilt has the ball
Bizarrely, though, Vanderbilt seems to have a better offense than defense under the defensive-minded Mason. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur, son of New York Giants head coach Pat, is a legitimate NFL prospect with good size and a strong arm, and has matched Vandy’s defense with 1,400 passing yards of his own this year. And the Gators have memories of him aerating their secondary: Shurmur did not play against Florida as a freshman, and completed just nine of 26 throws on the Gators in 2016, but he rebounded by throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns — while completing just 18 of 40 throws, sure — in 2017, and being far from the reason that Vandy lost in Gainesville.
Shurmur also has a couple of reliable targets: Wideout Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. Lipscomb is among the nation’s leaders in catches (45, tied for sixth), receiving yards (496, tied for 28th), and touchdowns (six, tied for 10th) and could have a pro future ahead of him, but Pinkney — a 6’4”, 255-pound titan of a man — has developed into a solid second option for the ‘Dores, averaging 17 yards a catch on 19 receptions. C.J. Bolar’s 17 receptions are third among Commodores, but no other Vandy player has more than six catches, and Lipscomb has nearly a third of the roster’s receptions by himself.
Florida’s pass defense still isn’t exactly airtight, with the corner spot opposite C.J. Henderson being manned largely by C.J. McWilliams (though far more effectively by backups like Trey Dean) and a young safety group still needing a lot more seasoning despiteBrad Stewart and Donovan Stiner each nabbing picks against LSU. But Florida could — and maybe should — sic Henderson on Lipscomb and take its chances with every other Vandy receiver, and there’s been little not to love about Henderson’s play this year.
And though that passing attack is only average when it comes to Success Rate and explosiveness, it’s still better than Vandy’s run game, which is bogged down by ineffectiveness that masks a knack for big plays. The ‘Dores rank No. 90 in rushing marginal efficiency and a terrible No. 120 in Stuff Rate, the latter of which is a really bad stat to carry into a game against Florida’s front seven, especially given the Gators’ season-high 11 tackles for loss against LSU. Ends Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga share the team lead in TFLs with 7.5 each, but seven Gators have more than one, and the discipline shown by Vosean Joseph against LSU suggests that Florida might finally have a second linebacker who can approach David Reese’s reliability in run support.
Gainesville native Ralph Webb is — finally, and thankfully — on an NFL roster instead of Vandy’s after four years of making big plays against the Gators, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Khari Blasingame, and Jamauri Wakefield share rock-toting duties for the ‘Dores. Vaughn, an Illinois transfer, leads Vandy in yards and yards per carry, and is likely to get most of the work on Saturday — and he’s been great of late, ringing up 146 yards to help save Vandy against Tennessee State and also mustering 79 yards on just eight carries against Georgia.
When both teams are kicking
Florida’s kicking games remain among the nation’s best through six games, with Evan McPherson still yet to miss a field goal that didn’t get hit so well that it crossed the crossbar beyond the tops of the goalposts and confuse the referees and Tommy Townsend once more helping Florida at crucial moments against LSU by bombing a 61-yard punt that backed up the Tigers in the final five minutes and flipping the field with a 70-yarder when Florida led by a single point in the third quarter. (McPherson’s booming 78-yard kickoff from his own 20 following Joseph incurring a 15-yard penalty for a Brandon Spikes tribute punt was helpful, too.)
Vandy’s kicking games are led by kicker Ryley Guay and punter Parker Thome, who take time off from what I’m sure are vital YouTube careers, given their names, to give the Commodores average to adequate work. Guay is 6-for-10 on field goals, and Thome is averaging about 45 yards a punt … but Guay has allowed eight returns on 29 kickoffs, and Vandy’s coughed up nearly 30 yards per kick return, and foes are getting about 10 yards a punt return, too, meaning that Kadarius Toney and Swain might have opportunities to make plays in this game.
Vandy punt returner Trey Ellis is averaging nearly 12 yards per attempt, which is good, but Vandy’s kick returners are both averaging about 22 yards a runback.
It’s been a while…
Florida’s winning streak over Vanderbilt was maybe the least-loved of the many incredible streaks to be snapped over the last decade, because, er, Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt, but the Gators’ 2013 loss to the Commodores in Gainesville was their first to Vandy since 1988.
And yet, because that loss was in Gainesville and not Nashville, Vandy still hasn’t scored a home win over Florida since then — meaning that a Florida win on Saturday would mean Vandy will go at least 30 full years without downing the Gators at home.
Coming off a dispiriting loss to Georgia and in the midst of another lost season, it’s hard to imagine that Vandy’s home-field advantage — usually nearly nonexistent against Florida, with thousands of Gators fans making the trek to Nashville — will be much of a factor in this contest.