Opponent: Florida Gators
Date: October 13
All-time series record: Florida leads, 39-10-2
Last meeting: September 30, 2017, in Gainesville; Florida won, 38-24
Last year’s record: 4-7 (86th in S&P+)
Head coach: Dan Mullen (first year at Florida; 69-46 overall in 9 years)
Returning starters: 19 (10 offense/9 defense)
Derek Mason has never beaten Florida in four tries, but the last three have been close: losing 9-7 on a late field goal in 2015, 13-6 in a game plagued by offensive mistakes in 2016, and 38-24 last year.
Florida was 3-1 and 3-0 in the SEC after beating Vanderbilt last season. The Gators would finish the season 4-7 and 3-5, with Randy Shannon coaching the last four games in place of deposed head coach Jim McElwain. After going 9-1 in games decided by one score or less over his first two years and change in Gainesville, McElwain’s close-games mojo finally ran out as the Gators dropped back to back home games to LSU (17-16) and Texas A&M (19-17.) Then McElwain implied that he’d gotten some death threats from fans, and in a bizarre sequence, McElwain was out as head coach within a week. (I’m sure it had nothing to do with a 41-7 thrashing at the hands of Georgia in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.) With former Miami head coach Shannon taking over as interim, Florida no-showed a 45-16 loss to Missouri the next week, then dropped a game at South Carolina and the season finale to Florida State.
Enter Dan Mullen, who was the offensive coordinator on Florida’s 2006 and 2008 national championship teams, and then had a successful nine years as Mississippi State’s head coach. And no, the 19 returning starters is not an exaggeration. That’s in part because multiple player suspensions led to some guys starting a year ahead of schedule, but Florida returns all five starters on the offensive line, their top two rushers, and their leading receiver. The defense returns its top four tacklers and nine starters overall.
And the Gators return one of three quarterbacks who started a game last season in Feleipe Franks, who threw for 1,438 yards as a redshirt freshman. But Franks has competition in the form of true freshman Emory Jones, and there is a very good chance that Jones will be the starter by the time the Gators come to Vanderbilt on October 13.
The amount of returning talent on Florida’s roster is balanced out by, well, how awful the Gators looked last year, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Some of that will be fixed by adding offensive mind Dan Mullen as head coach, but it’s hardly a guarantee that the Gators’ quarterback issues will be fixed: the options there are, essentially, one of the quarterbacks from last year’s disaster and a true freshman. Florida is projected to get a dead-cat bounce from 86th to 32nd in S&P+, which is mostly a reflection of them being Florida, but if the offensive problems aren’t fixed this suddenly looks like a winnable game for Vanderbilt.