Vanderbilt can boast a winning record for the first time under Derek Mason with a win on Saturday. Unfortunately, history isn’t on the Commodores’ side.
Vandy will face Florida with a 1-19 record in its rearview in the series’ past two decades. The team’s only triumph over the Gators since the Reagan era came three years ago while James Franklin was guiding this team to new heights. If Mason is going to turn this team around, a win over that team from Gainesville would be a good place to start.
Christian D’Andrea: If I had any confidence this was the Vanderbilt defense of 2015, I’d take the Commodores. Last year’s team limited Florida to just nine points. Six of them came on a drive that started at the Vandy 41 and three of them were the direct result of a 12-yard punt in VU territory that resulted in a nasty involuntary twitch each time I see Tommy Openshaw.
Point is, Vandy’s bend-don’t-break defense last year bordered on legendary. It hasn’t been the same in 2016, even though the only key players missing from that unit are Stephen Weatherly, Caleb Azubike, and Darreon Herring. While the team has been opportunistic against top Conference-USA teams like Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky, week three’s 38-7 shellacking by Georgia Tech was a stark example of what a team with Power 5 players can do to the ‘Dores.
After four games, Vanderbilt ranks 102nd in yards allowed per game with 452 — 50 more yards than this team allowed last year. Couple that defensive regression with an offensive revival in Gainesville and you’ve got a reason to take Florida as a 9.5 point favorite.
One thing could throw a wrench in that plan; Kyle Shurmur’s development.
Shurmur showed off advanced poise in the pocket to lead Vandy to a come-from-behind win against WKU last week. With the game on the line, he completed six of his eight passes for 74 yards and a touchdown in the final drive of regulation and the team’s sole overtime possession. That helped set a career high in passing yards (273) and stands as his finest performance in black and gold.
However, it happened against Western Kentucky, a team ranked 114th in the FBS in passing defense. Florida, by comparison, ranks 10th. Shurmur grew up fast last week. He’ll have to grow up even faster on Saturday.
Vanderbilt will need Shurmur to take another step forward and find a way to return its defense to 2015 form if it’s going to beat Florida. As far as I can tell, that’s too much, too soon for a team that had to fight from underneath the Hilltoppers in week four.
The Pick: Florida 31, Vanderbilt 20
The SEC Upset Pick of the Week: GEORGIA (+3) over Tennessee. I’m sure the Vols will trail through the first half and make a stunning comeback to make me look stupid, but I’m still not sure how they keep winning. Maybe this is the week UT’s mistakes prove to be fatal.
Tom Stephenson: Remember when Will Muschamp was Florida’s coach? Ah, good times.
Last year, Vanderbilt and Florida got slogged down in a hideous game. Both teams brought to the table good defenses paired with borderline incompetent offenses, and strangely Vanderbilt had a better kicker than Florida last year as well. Does this sound like the 2016 matchup? Vanderbilt’s offense is somewhat improved, but it hasn’t improved as much as the Gators’ offense... well, at least, with Luke Del Rio under center. Florida’s offense last week with Austin Appleby running it was at least competent for one half.
The bad news, though, is on the other side of the ball. While Kyle Shurmur has improved, the Gators will have easily the best pass defense he’s seen, and now Vanderbilt’s defense has been gashed the last few weeks. Vanderbilt is quite fortunate to be 2-2 and the last time Florida faced one of the bad teams in the East, Kentucky’s Drew Barker completed more passes to Gator defensive backs than to his own receivers. Shurmur probably won’t have that bad of a day, but we’re still interested to see what he can do against an actual pass defense (no, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky don’t count, sorry.)
The Pick: Florida 34, Vanderbilt 14.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Looking at the lines this week? Honestly, I’m seeing a chalky week coming — no, Georgia, I’m not going to pick you to beat Tennessee after that shitshow you put on in Oxford last week. (By the way, am I the only one thinking Kirby Smart at Georgia will go about as well as Will Muschamp did at Florida?) If you put a gun to my head and made me pick one upset, I’ll go with Missouri (+13) at LSU. Missouri’s offense has improved this year, in that they actually have an offense, and that’s more than can be said for LSU. Plus, with the firing of Les Miles over the weekend, you just never know which direction the emotional train is going to be running. So I could see an upset here... if I’m squinting really hard.
VandyTigerPhD: I have to agree with CDA and Tom that if this were last year’s team, I’d feel better about this game. The defense isn’t missing too much from last year personnel wise, some others have stepped up, but something is different. Cynically, I think that coaches have figured out whatever it was Mason was doing to make this defense so strong. If I can’t be confident that the defense is going to keep us in the game, it’s hard to even entertain the thought of a win.
Shurmur is developing, but the offense isn’t consistent enough to win a slugfest game. I’ve not been a fan of the splits in the playcalling the last two games, and with the Gator pass defense we should be running the heavy run offense. That loops me back around to the first point, as you need to have a stout defense who can make stops if you’re running a slow, methodological offense. So we’re stuck.
Still, maybe it’s just my memories of watching Earl get screwed in the Swamp from my Chaffin my senior year, but I always have this niggling feeling like we can pull a miracle off against Florida. The history speaks strongly against such a thing happening.
The Pick: Florida 42 - Vanderbilt 10. Barring a shocker that will be on sportscenter for weeks, this is going to be ugly.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: God, there’s like no great games to choose from. Missouri over LSU does look tempting, and I’ve got a weird feeling about USC hosting Aggie. Nonetheless, I’m going to tempt fate. Doesn’t matter what Bulldog team shows up between the hedges hosting Tennessee, the Vols will play to that level and no more. It’s been their whole thing this season. Maybe things will finally go awry. UGA (+3.5) over Tennessee.