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Vanderbilt Football 2023 Summer Opponent Preview: Florida Gators

Uhhh, that rebuild’s coming along, I guess.

Syndication: Gator Sports Doug Engle / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Opponent: Florida Gators

When: October 7, 2023

Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Florida

Last year: 6-7 (3-5 SEC.) Incredibly, Florida was ranked 12th in the country a week into the season after beating a top-10 Utah team to open the season. Losses to Kentucky and Tennessee sandwiched around narrowly surviving South Florida dropped them out of the poll, but after a 38-6 win over South Carolina on November 12, the Gators were 6-4 and this had all the makings of a stereotypical “just wait until you see us next year” first year under a new coach.

Then they lost to Vanderbilt. They lost to Florida State to close the regular season, Anthony Richardson declared for the NFL Draft and opted out of the bowl game, backup Jalen Kitna uh, got in some trouble, and Florida managed 219 yards of total offense in a 30-3 Las Vegas Bowl loss to Oregon State. That three-game stretch completely flipped the vibes of the program going into the offseason.

The last time we saw these guys: A week after snapping a 26-game SEC losing streak by beating Kentucky, Vanderbilt made it two in a row by beating Florida 31-24. Really, Florida lost this game more than Vanderbilt won it, with Florida outgaining Vanderbilt 441-283 (granted, a lot of that was late in the game while trying to erase a 28-12 deficit in the fourth quarter), but it also included hilarious shit like Vanderbilt long snapper Wesley Schelling scoring a touchdown on a muffed punt.

Series record: Florida leads, 43-11-2. Vanderbilt has beaten them just twice since 1988. One of them was last year, though.

Head Coach

Really, Billy Napier’s first year at Florida went about like expected if you consider that Dan Mullen left behind a low-key dumpster fire. He earned a reputation as a program builder by going 33-5 in his last three years at Louisiana after going 7-7 in his first season.

What we’re really about to find out is how much patience fans have for a full-scale rebuild in the transfer portal era, and what I find weird about the Twitter commentary on the situation is that the call seems to be coming from outside the house. From best I can tell, Florida fans (or at least the ones who make it into the Anchor of Gold Twitter feed, which granted is mostly just Alligator Army) are being relatively patient here and instead it’s rival fans who can’t believe they would tolerate doing anything other than going the Lincoln Riley route of completely overhauling the roster with transfers. Instead, Napier currently has the third-ranked class in 2024. It’s early and it might not end up there, but it’s not difficult to figure out what he’s doing.

But they are really damn mad that he lost to Vanderbilt.


Really, Florida’s offense wasn’t a problem last season; then again, they had a top-five pick at quarterback. Still, 29.5 ppg and 6.6 yards per play are not numbers to sneeze at.

Florida should have a nice running back rotation, returning a between-the-tackles back in Montrell Johnson (155 carries, 841 yards, 10 TD) and a speedster in Trevor Etienne (118 carries, 719 yards, 6 TD), while also adding a talented transfer in Cameron Carroll from Tulane. They also return top receiver Ricky Pearsall (33 catches, 661 yards, 5 TD.)

The bad news? Well, they lost four starters on the offensive line — only center Kingsley Eguakun returns, though another returnee (redshirt sophomore Austin Barber) did start five games — and they have to find a quarterback. The offensive line is where Dan Mullen’s lack of recruiting really shows up; this is an inexperienced group that’s probably going to lean on an FIU transfer and a guy who played sparingly in two years at Alabama, along with some youngsters. That could be a disaster waiting to happen. At quarterback, they brought in Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, who completed 57.3 percent of his passes while averaging 7.5 yards per attempt last season. Those numbers would have ranked 12th and 9th in the SEC last season; they’re fine if you’re a runner like Anthony Richardson, which Mertz... isn’t.


Florida’s defense suffered heavy losses from last season; the top five tacklers are all gone, and seven starters in total, including both starting linebackers, both starting safeties, starting defensive end Gervon Dexter, and the team’s two hybrid positions (DE/LB Antwaun Powell-Ryland and LB/S Tre’Vez Johnson, both of whom transferred.)

Obviously, there are going to be a lot of players to replace, so we’ll start with who does return: both starting corners are back and they’re decent; Jason Marshall Jr. had an interception and eight passes defensed, while Jaydon Hill had two interceptions. Defensive lineman Princely Umanmielen led the team in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (4.5.) 439-pound starting nose guard Desmond Watson... is best known for being 439 pounds.

At safety, Kamari Wilson only started one game, but played enough that he can reasonably be expected to step in this season; Florida also landed R.J. Moten from the transfer portal after he started the last two seasons at Michigan. In other words, the defensive backfield should be fine. There are more gambles in the front seven: at linebacker, it’s a couple of guys who weren’t major factors at Ohio State (Teradja Mitchell) and Michigan (Deuce Spurlock); on the defensive line, it’s a third-team All-AAC player from Memphis (Cam Jackson) and a little-used transfer from Louisville (Caleb Banks.) The better guess is that some of Napier’s recruits will start finding their way onto the field.

Special Teams

Aussie punter Jeremy Crawshaw is one of the SEC’s best, leading the league in punting average last season with 47.9 yards per punt. Walk-on kicker Adam Mihalek has a good leg, with three field goals from beyond 50 yards last season, and was mostly reliable in his first season though he did have two misses inside of 30 yards. The return game didn’t produce any touchdowns, though Trevor Etienne did average 24.8 yards on kick returns.


  • August 31 at Utah
  • September 9 vs. McNeese
  • September 16 vs. Tennessee
  • September 23 vs. Charlotte
  • September 30 at Kentucky
  • October 7 vs. Vanderbilt
  • October 14 at South Carolina
  • October 28 vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, FL)
  • November 4 vs. Arkansas
  • November 11 at LSU
  • November 18 at Missouri
  • November 25 vs. Florida State


I’m gonna be honest: this looks a lot more like what you expect a year-one team under a new coach to look like than a year-two team.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s going to be a pretty significant downgrade from Anthony Richardson to Graham Mertz. Granted, Richardson’s draft status was based more on upside than on what he actually did at Florida, but Florida is going from an electric if erratic starter at the most important position on the field to... a starter who’s probably just erratic. Throw in an offensive line that’s undergoing a massive transition, replacing four starters, and... whew, there’s a pretty high potential for the offense to suck. The defense is retooling, too, with a bunch of starters gone to the NFL or the portal, and from the looks of things the replacements are probably going to be a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. If you want to put a positive spin on things, the youngsters are pretty talented; Napier managed to salvage the 17th-ranked recruiting class in 2022, and the 2023 class ranked 12th, and in both cases he really seemed to prioritize the defensive side of the ball.

I’m making the case that it’s plausible that the bottom truly falls out for this team, but I don’t really think that’s in the cards. More likely, they’ll take the two absolute gimmes out of conference (McNeese and Charlotte) and then scrap out four more wins against the remainder of the schedule. We’ll have a pretty good idea of what kind of team this will be after early-season games against Utah and Tennessee.