Vanderbilt risks falling below .500 on Saturday, and one look at their history against Florida suggests that it's all but a foregone conclusion. The Commodores haven't beaten the Gators in Gainesville since 1945, thanks in part to a Florida team that was too busy celebrating the end of World War II to focus on the gridiron. In fact, they haven't beaten the Gators at all - in Tennessee or Florida - since 1988.
This year could be different. Not only are the Commodores surging in their third season under James Franklin, but Florida is sputtering at the two-thirds mark of the season. The Gators, who are without record-setting quarterback Jeff Driskel, have lost their last three games. Their most recent defeat came against the only SEC opponent that Vandy has beaten in 2013. As a result, this may be Vanderbilt's best chance to win in the swamp since Earl Bennett was called for the world's weakest excessive celebration penalty.
In order to assess the 'Dores chances, we turned to an expert. Andy Hutchins runs the outstanding Florida blog Alligator Army. He knows the Gators inside and out, and he was gracious enough to take some time to answer our questions (and return them in HTML format, even). Here's what he had to say about the Gators as a date with Patton Robinette looms:
1. Jeff Driskel, thankfully, is out for the season with a leg injury, making Tyler Murphy Florida's starting quarterback. Is Murphy capable of gashing the 'Dores like Driskel did before him? How much responsibility does Murphy have in the Gators' three-game losing streak?
Ha, I forgot that you guys remember Jeff Driskel as the guy who broke Tim Tebow's record for rushing yards by a Florida quarterback. That was so, so long ago. [Editor's note: just one bitter year, in which Vanderbilt has failed to make any progress defending against the read-option.]
Murphy's not the runner Driskel is (was?), as he's more quick and elusive, while Driskel's better at running in a straight line at top speed. I think Driskel's a little faster, too. But Murphy's excellent out of the zone read, just like Driskel was, so I wouldn't be surprised for him to get 50 or more yards against Vandy, especially if the zone read works as well as it did last year.
But Murphy's also very much culpable in Florida's recent struggles, because he's still learning how to make decisions in games at the collegiate level after spending years on the bench. I wrote a pretty thorough analysis of his decision-making as a passer against Georgia earlier this week, but his issues boil down to two things: He doesn't have a great arm or great accuracy, and he's often indecisive when pressure comes. If Vandy can either make him make difficult throws or get consistent heat on him, he will probably struggle.
2. Florida's running game hasn't been as strong in 2013 as it has been in years past, and the Gators are averaging 3.7 yards per carry. Is that a reflection on this team's running backs, or has the offensive line had trouble against a schedule that has featured some strong defenses in the first two-thirds of the season?
I think it's both. Matt Jones was never healthy this fall after a viral infection left him hospitalized in August, but Florida's coaches raved about him in the spring and summer, and he was pretty good against Kentucky. He was unquestionably Florida's starter coming into the year, but everything behind him was murkier, and we've seen why: Mack Brown's a good runner when he isn't asked to make cuts, but lacks agility and isn't going to burn anyone, and Kelvin Taylor is a freshman, albeit a very talented one, who's mixed freshman mistakes in with some explosiveness. Florida's coaches have also taken some heat for bringing Taylor along slowly, but he's gotten his yards mostly against tougher competition, so I wouldn't be surprised if he breaks out against a team like Vandy that isn't quite on par with the LSUs and Georgias of the world.
Florida's also had some issues run blocking, but those are more often problems with consistency. The Gators pull the guards and center exceptionally well (Jonotthan Harrison is a fantastic center), and can get things going outside by doing that, but they don't get a ton of push up front, and sometimes get pushed back in ways that allow plays to get snuffed out in the backfield.
Finally, losing Jeff Driskel really helped minimize the effect of the zone read this year. Florida appeared pretty comfortable running Driskel early on, despite having the untested Murphy behind him, but Driskel's injury means the even greener Skyler Mornhinweg is a snap away from taking a snap, and Murphy just can't take hits -- he's already dealing with a shoulder sprain, and anything more might just end Florida's chances of winning again this season.
3. If Florida can't drive the ball behind their running game, Vanderbilt will be able to turn to a strong secondary to limit the Gators' passing attack (if not, our corners will be stuck in transition between bailing out the linebackers and giving up massive plays as they did two weeks ago against A&M). Does Florida have the aerial attack to overcome a veteran-laden group of cornerbacks and safeties? Who in particular could cause damage on Saturday?
Yes and no. Florida doesn't have great receivers, but its receiving corps is vastly improved from the 2012 version that was basically nonexistent, and I think Quinton Dunbar, Solomon Patton, and Trey Burton are all reliable targets. Dunbar is long overdue for a breakout game, and Burton's been a little underutilized of late, so either could cause damage, but the guy I'd look out for is Ahmad Fulwood. He's a freshman, and hasn't done much, but he's more fluid than any other Florida receiver, despite being the biggest target on the team, and I'd love to see him get more targets.
Of course, this is all dependent on Murphy having time to throw. He had more against Georgia than in the month of October, seemingly, but it's hard to be sure that the offensive line will stay solid.
4. In a battle between two teams with still-developing quarterbacks, are you planning for a low-scoring affair on Saturday?
I think still-developing is a nice way of referring to Murphy, and it might also be kind for Patton Robinette — who has an awesome name, let's be clear.
I think this is probably going to be a low-scoring game, but Georgia's 23 points against Florida came entirely in the first half, and had Todd Gurley stayed healthy, that number could've been significantly higher. I do expect Florida's defense to play better against a less talented Vandy offense, and I think Florida's offense might play more like it did in the second half against Georgia, but I wouldn't be surprised at all for both teams to bog down. If they do, I like Florida's chances better than I would in a shootout.
5. Vanderbilt's offensive line struggled to keep Patton Robinette upright two weeks ago against Texas A&M. Can Florida exploit that weakness and take Jordan Matthews out of this game by forcing his quarterback into rushed passes and bad decisions? Who should the Commodores be afraid of from the Gators' defense?
In all probability, Florida can pressure a team with a bad offensive line -- but that team has to be in bad downs and distances so that the Gators can bring extra men, because the pressure isn't coming nearly as often as most fans would like from four-man rushes. Dante Fowler, Jr. is probably the name to remember here, as he's Florida's best defensive lineman, but if teams double him, then there's not a heck of a lot else that the Gators are going to be able to do without more rushers.
What you should really be afraid of, I think, are Florida's corners. They've been playing off and trying to make defenses take what they want to give of late, but I've been waiting for some jumped routes for a while now, and I think that might be easier to gamble on when the quarterback on the other side is as inexperienced as Robinette.
6. Do Florida alumni ever get sick of having to watch Vanderbilt every other year in the middle of their Homecoming festivities?
Given that Florida's Homecoming game last year was a surprisingly tight game with Louisiana — it's Louisiana-Lafayette to some, but as I was there to see that game, it'll be Louisiana forevermore, as the Ragin' Cajuns wish — I think Vandy is a familiar and welcome sight this year. I mean, it's only been 25 years since Vandy last beat Florida, so it's not like Kentucky's coming to town, but Florida fans would probably really, really like a win this year, and don't care so much who it comes against.
And if Vandy wins this weekend? Hoooooo boy. Chaos is coming.
7. And finally, what's your prediction for Saturday?
I think Florida gets back on the horse and wins in the fashion it did against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas: Smart, conservative offense, and defense that makes big plays to cover for some issues with consistency. Maybe something like Florida 27, Vanderbilt 20?