There's not much to like about playing in the swamp. The Commodores haven't won there since 1945 - a victory whose celebration led to the amazing population growth later known as the baby boom. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is only known for two things in Nashville; vicious Commodore beatdowns and questionable excessive celebration flags.
This year holds the promise to be different. Jordan Rodgers has led Vanderbilt within eight points of a 6-2 record over his last three weeks at the helm. Games against Georgia and Arkansas were a coin flip away from falling to Vandy's advantage and putting this team on the national radar. Head coach James Franklin has done an incredible job of turning this team around, and while that's been reflected by his 4-4 record, the place it shines through the most is on the field.
Vanderbilt's players have hit the turf in 2011 with a fire that fans simply didn't see under Robbie Caldwell or even Bobby Johnson. The defense, which was so worn down in 2010 that the fourth quarter of Vandy games turned into inevitable blowouts, has become the catalyst of Commodore comebacks. The offense, which would slow to half-speed if the team couldn't sustain drives early on, has found the fuel to be effective for a full 60 minutes against top ten teams. In short, these players have found a new gear, and Franklin and his crew are making sure that they use it, regardless of opponent.
The 'Dores will have their best chance to upset Florida in the swamp since World War II as a result. The Gators are working through a down year that has seen them lose four straight games. A fifth - to Vanderbilt, no less - would signify one of the worst slumps Gatordom has ever faced. They'll host the Commodores in a homecoming game that could be a defining moment in Will Muschamp's first season in Gainesville. Motivation won't be in question for this contest. This isn't a trap game, and Vanderbilt won't be able to take Florida by surprise. Instead, we'll get two teams battling for relevancy and their spot in the middle of the SEC totem pole.
If Vanderbilt wins, it will put them in third place in the SEC East and one game away from bowl eligibility. If Florida wins, it will stop the bleeding of a cruel October (just one season away from quoting Bananarama there). Emotions will be running high for both teams, and there's more at stake than meets the eye. So who will come out ahead? We've got our wholly speculative predictions after the jump.
Train Island: Ah, Gainesville, the land of 30 point spreads. Vanderbilt's futile efforts in the swamp haven't gone unnoticed. The team is a 13-point underdog even though each squad sits at 4-4 coming into Saturday's matchup. Florida will have John Brantley ready to go at quarterback, but he's gimpy enough to inspire this fanshot at Alligator Army, awesomely subtitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My One-Legged Quarterback.
Brantley may not be 100 percent, but he's still much better than the rag-tag tandem that led the Gators to losses against LSU and Auburn. He also doesn't have the kind of big arm that has been tearing up the Commodores for 300 yard passing games lately. When Vandy last saw him, he coolly ate Robbie Caldwell's team up for 157 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-14 beatdown that was somehow more lopsided than the final score suggests.
Brantley's impact will be tangible, but the key for the Commodores will lie in stopping Florida's running game. Chris Rainey is the devastating kind of quick tailback who will probably punch one in with under a minute remaining in the first half to deflate Vandy's chances of winning. Jeff Demps is another diminutive speedster who will cause more and more problems the further he gets from the line of scrimmage. Either one could gash the 'Dores if there is a lapse in defensive line play.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt, that's one area that this team has excelled in lately. They held Arkansas to 72 yards on 26 carries and kept Georgia to 114 yards on 34 carries. If they can hold Florida to around three yards per rush, then they'll give this team's offense plenty of opportunities to win the game Saturday.
Normally, that's where things would get pessimistic for the 'Dores, but what's not to be excited about with this offense? Last week, Jordan Rodgers proved that he can execute efficiently against a top SEC squad. The Vanderbilt team that put up 28 points on Arkansas didn't do it behind gadget plays and trickery, they did it behind a stout running game, great blocking, and on-target passing. In fact, you could argue that 28 points was essentially the minimum amount that this team could have scored last week thanks to some terrible luck and bad mistakes.
So will Vanderbilt replicate that performance? Can Zac Stacy pull out another 100 yard rushing game? Can Jordan Rodgers throw for over 200 yards without an interception? Is Jordan Matthews truly the #1 receiver he showed signs of being against Arkansas? These guys did it last week, and if they can do it again, they won't end up on the wrong side of a heartbreaker this time. Florida's defense will make things more difficult for the 'Dores, but make no mistake - this team is capable of hanging with the Gators in a high-scoring affair.
Who would have seen that coming at the beginning of the season?
TI's pick: Vanderbilt 33, Florida 27
TI's SEC Upset Pick of the Week: South Carolina over Arkansas. It's a rough spate of SEC picks this week, with very few interesting underdogs out there. The Gamecocks are without Marcus Lattimore, but they've still shown to be the stronger squad throughout the season. Case in point - Steve Spurrier's squad overcame four Vandy interceptions to dominate the Commodores. Arkansas, on the other hand, needed four Vandy to drop four interceptions to pull out a comeback win in Nashville.
KingJamesIV: Vandy hasn't won in the swamp since before my father was born. My grandfather was a member of that team. NINETEEN HUNDRED FORTY FIVE AAAAY DEEEE. Winning World War II was apparently less daunting a task. How else can you explain the last thirty-plus attempts? I'll spare rehashing the 2005 Earl-Bennett-penalty-in-the-endzone debacle. The night terrors are so bloody terrifying and depressing.
Despite a couple of frustrating near-win misses, Vandy has only lost to ranked teams this season. South Carolina and Alabama on the road (both top ten). Georgia and Arkansas at home. And we
should could have been undefeated at home.
For the first time in my memory, Vanderbilt is getting better as the season progresses. Pick a year since 1982 where the team wasn't horribly ravaged by injuries physically and suffering from a severe deficit of self-confidence mentally. Impossible.
James Franklin is a witch. How else can you explain it? He's got a boiling cauldron filled with the scraps of all our victims -- the rotting chunks of Hog and Dawg we took in body blows we delivered in virtually deadlocked skirmishes. He's feeding this wicked brew to the Commodores. It has their confidence growing. It heals them. Yet it doesn't sustain them. They grow hungrier each week.
Consider where these two teams were a year ago. Florida is on the decline; Vanderbilt, the ascendancy. If ever there was a time to march into the bowels of the swamp and walk out with the severed head of our opponent, this is it.
We are Beowulf.
KJIV's pick: Vanderbilt 38, Florida 31
KJIV's SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Middle Tennessee over Tennessee. Specifically for the potential schadenfreude.