Christian D'Andrea/Adam Reed
The red hot Gators come to Nashville on the heels of a big win over LSU. Will they fall victim to Vanderbilt's trap on Saturday?
It's been a while since Vanderbilt beat Florida. Over two decades, in fact.
A Commodore win on Saturday would keep the Gators from matching a shameful school record. Tennessee beat Vanderbilt a pitiful 22 times between 1984 and 2004 before Earl Bennett's late touchdown reception gave the 'Dores a win in 2005, shutting down what was then an ignominious SEC record. Seven years later, Florida can earn a 22nd straight victory over Vandy with a big showing on Saturday.
That's a record James Franklin and his players will be hell bent on preventing this weekend. Vanderbilt heads into their matchup with the Gators as a nine-point underdog, but they'll also be playing with newfound confidence after notching their first FBS win of the season over Missouri. That game showcased their defensive strength and offensive scrappiness, and the 'Dores will have to build on that if they want to extinguish Florida's national title hopes at Dudley Field.
That'll be a tough task against what looks like one of the strongest Gator teams since the days of Tim Tebow (a whopping three years ago). Jeff Driskel has settled into the quarterback role as a sophomore, and his efficiency and ability to create plays with his legs have helped Florida roll out to a 5-0 start. His team is coming off of a big win over former #4 LSU, and the Gators will have big showdowns with #3 South Carolina and #13 Georgia. While the 'Dores don't fit the highly-ranked profile of the rest of Florida's October opponents, they could prove to be similarly dangerous.
Much is being made of the prospect of Saturday's game being a "trap game" for the Gators. Vanderbilt could prove to be the overlooked lion that brings Florida's developing season to a mid-year crash. Theories like that have been the reasoning behind Commodore wins over highly-ranked teams like Georgia in 2006 and South Carolina in 2007.
The truth is, however, that Vanderbilt has never been a team that can quite capitalize on being overlooked. Instead, Commodore fans have been treated to plenty of "close, but no cigar" matchups over the years. At no point was this more evident than in 2011, when James Franklin's first-year team lost heartbreakers to Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and these same Florida Gators. Will Muschamp got to see what Vandy can do at the Swamp last season. There's little reason to suggest that he won't be more prepared in 2012.
So no, Vanderbilt-Florida is not a trap game. The Gators will be every bit as prepared for the Commodores as they were for LSU, and as they will be for South Carolina next week. If Vanderbilt ends the streak on Saturday, it won't be a product of Florida's preparation. Instead, it will be the crowning achievement of a team that is continuing to grow and find their footing in the SEC. And while there are long odds against it, it would be the kind of warning shot that ensures that no Commodore matchups under Franklin would ever be considered "trap games" again.
Now, on to the predictions:
Christian D'Andrea: It wouldn't be fair to assume that the Vanderbilt defense will be able to put together a stellar performance like they did last week against Mizzou. The Tiger offensive line has had many of the same problems that Vanderbilt's has, and their inability to protect the quarterback shone in the fourth quarter - the period where Vandy gutted out the upset win. Florida, on the other hand, has an O-Line that has developed into one of the SEC's best. While the 'Dores have the depth and strength to get to Jeff Driskel, they won't be able to be the quarterback-rattling presence that helped keep Missouri out of the end zone when it mattered most.
That means that Vandy is going to have to score to stay alive in this one. We saw Jordan Rodgers improve as last week's game wore on, but if he has another start that fails to produce a first down before the second quarter then this game may be over by halftime. The margin of error against the Gators is a fraction of what it was against Missouri, and the Commodores used up all of their wiggle room in that upset win.
Still, things are headed in the right direction for this team to pull off the biggest home upset in school history (that's an educated guess, but I can't think of any victories at Dudley Field that would qualify as bigger). Zac Stacy, Chris Boyd, and Jordan Matthews all proved that they can come up with big plays when this team needs them the most (of course, for Matthews this is dependent on not being egregiously held when the ball is in the air). The defense, led by a slick rotation of front line players and an ever-improving linebacking corps, has proven that they are SEC caliber in two of their three league games so far. If the Vandy D can hold steady, it may just take a few breakout plays from the team's skill players to put the 'Dores ahead.
Unfortunately, just earning a lead hasn't been enough for this team. Vanderbilt squandered fourth-quarter advantages in losses to South Carolina and Northwestern, and the second half has been the stage for big Florida performances this year. The Gators don't gas, and if Vandy gets vulnerable late in the game, Muschamp's squad will be ripe to take advantage of the opportunity. Ultimately, that will be the difference between a season-defining upset and another heartbreaking defeat.
The Pick: Florida 24, Vanderbilt 20
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Louisiana Tech (+7 1/2) over Texas A&M. Come on, Bulldogs. Don't make me regret all those dynasty years I spent on you back with NCAA Football '03.