Vanderbilt can still win the SEC East, but it's going to take hard work, a little luck...and a road win over #10 Florida this weekend.
That's a tall task for a Commodore team that has beaten the Gators only one time since 1989. Vandy has had several close calls in the past decade, but their only win over UF came during James Franklin's final season in 2013. Since then, second-year head coach Derek Mason has gone 0-1 against his SEC East rival.
The Gators are in the midst of a resurgence under Jim McElwain, and their 7-1 record has made them a top 10 team with national title aspirations. To get a better idea of what Florida has in store for the Commodores in the swamp, I enlisted the help of an expert to break down their strengths and weaknesses. Andy Hutchins is the Managing Editor of Alligator Army, SB Nation's Florida Gators site. He was kind enough to sit down and answer some of the questions that I had about Treon Harris, Kelvin Taylor, and the rest of the Gators.
1. Vanderbilt's run to the SEC East title begins on Saturday, since a Commodore win could prevent the Gators from locking up the division. On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you of the Commodores and their 123rd ranked scoring offense?
Andy Hutchins: Like a negative two? I know that sounds mean, but Florida's given up 55 points to LSU and Tennessee in SEC play, and 25 points in its other four SEC games, one of which was at home. The Gators are coming home for the first time in four weeks, Vanderbilt's offense is at or below Missouri's level, and most Florida players on this team vividly remember losing to the Commodores in their Homecoming game two years ago. I don't really see them taking this team lightly, especially with the SEC East on the line.
But, hey, Vandy's shot is better than Georgia's.
2. Treon Harris is back at quarterback after Will Grier was suspended for the season, but it looks like his accuracy issues haven't gone away yet and he's completed only 49 percent of his passes since returning to the starting role. Are Gators fans worried about his role in this offense? What can he do against a Vanderbilt defense that has been the program's bright spot in another ugly season?
Yeah, I think Florida fans are worried. There's a span on "worried," though.
Some more pessimistic fans have been declaring that the Gators can't win with Harris as a starter (Florida is 6-3 with Harris as a starter, and two of those losses are one-score defeats at Florida State and LSU). But there are other fans closer to my more optimistic view, which is that Harris is pretty clearly a significantly lesser quarterback in some ways (accuracy, speed of decision-making) than Grier was, but is also good enough at other things (running, ability to extend plays, an uncanny knack for throwing deep balls on the run) to make up for some of those deficiencies.
Loosely, I think that it's fair to say Harris isn't quite good enough to win games against good teams largely by himself, while Grier might well have been, and arguably did that against Tennessee. Given Florida's defense and a resurgent running game as allies, however, Harris can do more than enough to allow the Gators to win games.
As for what he can do against Vanderbilt: I realize that this defense is much improved on last year's, but Harris did have arguably the best start of his career against Vandy last year, throwing for 215 yards and running for 49 more and two scores. His mobility can give even a great defense fits, as long as he makes the decision to vacate the pocket on time (something he struggles with), and Florida's largely avoided using him in the running game so far under Jim McElwain, which makes me think that a change-up is in their repertoire.
3. Kelvin Taylor has been the headliner in the Gators' rushing attack, but Florida's runners have failed to gain more than four yards per carry this season. How has Florida been so successful in a run-heavy SEC despite carrying a relatively average running attack?
Honestly, it's been the things other than the running game that stepped up when Florida's sputtered on the ground. Grier was really, really good for a span of about three quarters against Tennessee and Mississippi, and that was all the ferocious Gators defense needed to close down those games.
Florida's also done an excellent job of avoiding turnovers and forcing teams to do things the hard way on defense, while its own defense feeds the offense great field position routinely. It's hard to beat virtually any team when it averages a +1.5 turnover margin, but Florida's second nationally at +1.63 turnovers per game (Houston, as you may well know, is No. 1) — and the Gators have a great defense even when it's not snatching the ball away.
To make matters worse, though, Florida did just run for 258 yards and more than five yards per carry on Georgia, which had a top-25 run defense coming into that game, and hadn't allowed either Alabama or Tennessee to top 4.5 yards per carry. Whether that was a blip for the Gators or the beginning of more proficiency on the ground — with Taylor running hard and well as ever, but getting actual holes to run through, and freshman Jordan Scarlett adding his explosiveness to the mix — remains to be seen.
4. Florida is one of the SEC's few teams that fields a stingier scoring defense than Vanderbilt. What's been the Gators' key to holding teams like Ole Miss and Georgia to 10 points or fewer?
It's tempting to say that intangible things like "pride" and "hunger" fuel this defense, but that's somewhat ridiculous; it's better and more accurate, I think, to say that Florida plays solid, relentless defense on most downs, forces teams into difficult situations, and preys on dangerous throws and pass-rushing opportunities.
The only time Florida's defense has really struggled since getting nearly its full complement of players healthy and on the field at the same time — injuries and suspensions limited the Gators over their first three games, especially in the secondary, and not having Jalen Tabor against Tennessee really hurt — was at LSU, where an excellent offensive line and Leonard Fournette generally kept the Tigers ahead of schedule and gave Brandon Harris time to throw when they weren't. And while Florida's secondary didn't play that poorly outside of a couple of big plays, that would seem to be a successful formula for attacking the Gators.
Alas, no one else has LSU's line (which has allowed just eight sacks on the year) or Fournette. And knowing the formula isn't all that helpful when you don't have the materials list for the experiment.
5. That Gator attack has been especially tough on quarterbacks: 12 different defenders have recorded at least a partial sack this season. How has Florida performed against teams with young or rebuilding offensive lines this season - and how worried should Johnny McCrary (and possibly Kyle Shurmur, if healthy) be on Saturday?
Florida has performed very, very well, and Vandy's QBs should be very, very worried. The Gators' only games without multiple sacks were their last two, and while LSU's line really did neutralize Florida's pass rush, which depends on consistent pressure from a bunch of good players — Jonathan Bullard is a superb hybrid tackle/end, but he plays better against the run than against the pass — rather than the one terror it had last year in Dante Fowler, Georgia didn't really nullify the line so much as play a mobile quarterback who could get away from a rush only to make a poor decision under pressure.
Florida ate up an injury- and suspension-limited Mississippi line, and worked over the younger units Kentucky and Tennessee put on the field. I'm not that familiar with McCrary and Shurmur, but I suspect Bullard et al. will be by early Saturday afternoon.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's showdown?
I think Florida comes home fired up and motivated to finish off their surprising run to the SEC East title and makes a few big plays early to put an insurmountable margin between the two teams on the field. And if Florida's running game is up to the new standard it set last Saturday, I think things could get quite ugly.
Let's say Florida wins, 31-6.