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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: Florida

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At least the hardest games on the SEC slate are out of the way first!

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Florida vs Oklahoma Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: Florida Gators

Date: October 9, 2021

All-time series record: Florida leads, 42-10-2

Last meeting: November 21, 2020; Florida won, 38-17

Last year: 8-4, 6th in SP+, 14th in Sagarin

Head coach: Dan Mullen (fourth year, 29-9; 13th year overall, 98-55)

Well, Florida won the SEC East in 2020, for the first time since 2016 — but it wasn’t particularly pretty, especially at the end.

The Gators came out on fire with a high-powered offense in opening the season with back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina. They lost a shootout at Texas A&M in the third game of the season, then had a COVID-imposed two-week break. A 44-28 win over Georgia in the WLOCP on November 7 effectively clinched the SEC East, and they’d go into the regular-season finale, a home game against struggling LSU, with an 8-1 record and a #6 ranking in the College Football Playoff ranking.

And then, after making a third-down stop in the closing minutes of a tie game, Gator defensive back had one of the biggest brain farts I’ve ever witnessed, picking up an LSU player’s shoe off the turf and throwing it downfield. The 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag set up a game-winner for LSU, dropping the Gators to #11 in the rankings and effectively ending their playoff chances ahead of the SEC Championship Game, which ended up as a 52-46 loss to Alabama. For good measure, the Gators didn’t bother showing up for a 55-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, ending the season with a thud.

Dan Mullen is no stranger to high-powered offenses, and even with the Gators needing to replace their quarterback and his three favorite targets, the offense should be fine. The defense? Well, the defense allowed 30.8 ppg — 74th in the country. If that’s been fixed, I can maybe see Florida challenging Georgia for the East title. But if not...

Offense

After an insane senior season, quarterback Kyle Trask is off to be Tom Brady’s backup after being the Buccaneers’ second-round pick. That leaves the quarterback job at Florida to one of a handful of former highly-touted recruits, but it’s probably going to be redshirt junior Emory Jones (18-32-221, 2 TD, 1 INT; 32-217-2 rushing), who was Trask’s backup for the last two seasons. New quarterbacks are always a question mark, but in the world of the Transfer Portal, you can always be pretty safe assuming that if Dan Mullen thought he needed a quarterback, he’d have gotten one. Redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson (1-2-27, 1 TD, 1 INT; 7-61-0 rushing) and true freshman Carlos Del Rio-Wilson (the #17 QB prospect, per 247 Sports) are also available. Either Jones or Richardson offers the mobility that Mullen has usually craved at the quarterback position, which neither Trask nor former starter Feleipe Franks had much of.

Also gone: Trask’s top three targets, as Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts both went in the first round of the NFL Draft, and third-leading receiver Trevon Grimes has also moved on. Justin Shorter (25-268-3), a Penn State transfer who was once ranked as the #1 WR prospect in the country, and Jacob Copeland (23-435-3) at least have the potential to replace the two departed receivers’ production — but I’m just not sure where the hell Florida finds another Pitts. The Gators will probably rely on Kemore Gamble (10-160-3) and Keon Zipperer (11-145-2) at the vacated tight end spot. At running back, Dameon Pierce (106-503-4) and Malik Davis (66-310-0) weren’t anything special in 2020 and Dan Mullen went into the transfer portal to grab Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman, the #2 RB prospect in the Class of 2020.

Up front, Florida caught a big break when starting RG Stewart Reese (6’6”/345) and RT Jean Delance (6’5”/307) elected to take advantage of the free year of eligibility from the NCAA — meaning that the Gators return three starters on the offensive line. 6’6”, 342-pound sophomore Josh Braun should fill one of the holes; center appears to be up for grabs.

Defense

If you’re interested in spinning Florida’s defensive performance in 2020, the unit did its job against mediocre offenses. But they gave up 35 to Ole Miss, 41 to Texas A&M, 35 to Arkansas, 37 to LSU, 52 to Alabama, and 55 to Oklahoma.

The linebacking corps returns mostly intact, and that’s a good thing. The team’s top two tacklers — Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate — are back, as is Georgia transfer Brenton Cox, a good source of havoc up front (10 TFL, 3.5 sacks.) Khris Bogle started the final three games of the season and had 3.5 sacks in 2020; they also return Jeremiah Moon, who returns for a sixth year after starting four games in 2020.

Things are a bit more unsettled up front. Defensive end Zachary Carter started 11 games last season and had a team-leading five sacks, but the Gators will have to find a way to replace starting tackles Tederell Slaton and Kyree Campbell. One possibility is 6’6”, 303-pound sophomore Gervon Dexter, a five-star recruit who started twice in 2020 including in the Cotton Bowl loss. There are some big-bodied, former blue-chip recruits to choose from, and an intriguing true freshman in 6’5”, 400-pound (not a typo) Desmond Watson, but it’s possible the addition of graduate transfers Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) and Antonio Valentino (Penn State) is an indication that Mullen didn’t like the in-house options.

The backfield returns starting corner Kaiir Elam, who led the SEC with 11 passes defensed in 2020, and junior Jaydon Hill (7 passes defensed) looks like a keeper as well. And, the Gators signed the #2 cornerback in the country (per the 247 Sports composite) in Jason Marshall. In other words, cornerback isn’t going to be an issue. Safety might be: five different players started there in 2020 and just one, Rashad Torrence (25 tackles in 2020) returns. Senior Trey Dean (34 tackles, 1 INT) could start at one spot, but the other might be manned by a true freshman — either Corey Collier Jr. (a five-star according to Rivals) or Donovan McMillon.

Special Teams

This is in flux, as last year’s primary kicker (Evan McPherson) and punter (Jacob Finn) are both gone, as is return man Kadarius Toney, who had a punt return touchdown last season.

Mullen brought in graduate transfer Jace Christmann (who he coached at Mississippi State) as a one-year stopgap for placekicking duties, and Australian Jeremy Crawshaw is on scholarship and presumably will handle punting duties. Crawshaw had two punts for 98 yards in 2020. Christmann in three years as Mississippi State’s primary placekicker was pretty reliable inside of 40 yards (21-for-23.)

Schedule

  • September 4 vs. Florida Atlantic 6:00 PM/SEC Network
  • September 11 at South Florida 12:00 PM/ABC
  • September 18 vs. Alabama 2:30 PM/CBS
  • September 25 vs. Tennessee
  • October 2 at Kentucky
  • October 9 vs. Vanderbilt
  • October 16 at LSU
  • October 30 vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, FL) 2:30 PM/CBS
  • November 6 at South Carolina
  • November 13 vs. Samford
  • November 20 at Missouri
  • November 27 vs. Florida State

Of course Vanderbilt will be the Gators’ homecoming game, though that might as well be because it’s the only October home game.

After a couple of tune-ups to open the season, Florida gets a chance to make a statement with Alabama coming to Gainesville. That’s followed by three should-be wins, with home games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt sandwiched around a trip to Kentucky. Winning either the Alabama game or at LSU on October 16 would make the WLOCP the de facto East title game; lose both of those, and the Gators will need some help to claim the East title even if they beat the Bulldogs. The November schedule is pretty soft, with a trip to rebuilding South Carolina and FCS Samford, though a trip to Missouri (in gasp cold weather) might be a trap before the season finale against Florida State. The Vegas over/under is 9 wins and... I think they’ll win exactly nine games. Gun to my head, I’d go with the under, as I think it’s more likely that they lose all three of Alabama, LSU, and Georgia and trip up somewhere else (Missouri? Kentucky?) than it is that they beat one of those three.

Recent series vs. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt has beaten Florida just once since 1988, a 34-17 win over a Will Muschamp-coached Gator team in 2013. Since then, they’ve lost seven in a row, though some of them have been competitive (9-7 in 2015, 13-6 in 2016, 37-27 in 2018) — with a disastrous 56-0 loss in 2019 thrown in there.

Outlook

Florida, to me, looks like a pretty clear second-place pick in the SEC East. They’ll still be an above-average offensive team, but replacing Kyle Trask and his top three receivers is going to be a tough ask. Of course, Emory Jones has had three years to learn the system and also presents more of a running threat than Trask did, so this should end up being fine — particularly with three returning starters on the offensive line to help smooth things over.

The defense, still, might be what holds Florida back. The Gators just could never figure out how to slow down good offenses in 2020, and it’s not a great sign when you’re bringing in graduate transfers on the defensive line. There are certainly the pieces here to have a good defense, but you don’t have to read too far between the lines to figure out what I think of Florida’s defensive coordinator.

That’s how, in spite of all the offensive firepower the Gators featured in 2020, the season ended with the most losses and lowest AP poll finish of Dan Mullen’s three-year tenure. The offense seems to be figured out, but any dropoff on that side of the ball had better be matched by some improvement on the defensive side — because, with Alabama on the schedule along with a trip to LSU and the WLOCP, Florida is looking at three teams that should be able to put up points on the schedule.

I don’t think Dan Mullen’s job is remotely in danger, but you have to wonder if fans are going to start getting antsy about losing three games every season.

(With all that said, they’re beating us.)