NASHVILLE, TN — If you’re old enough to remember the “Lost In Space” television series in the 1960s, then you remember the robot warning his best buddy, Will Robinson with shouts of “Danger! Danger!” The Florida Gators don’t have a handy robot to shout warnings about the Vanderbilt Commodores but maybe the coaching staff will be shouting “Danger” when they wake the team Saturday morning.
Danger is the word of the day here in Nashville and that’s because this is a paybacks are hell Saturday for the Vanderbilt Commodores, whom the Gators have beaten 15 straight years. If you ask Vandy, however, that losing streak got broken last year. Yes, the scoreboard read Florida 49, Vanderbilt 42 in overtime, but Vandy thinks the zebras not only screwed them out of a win but out of a bowl game. Ask them and they’ll tell you they won the game and lost the score.
The Commodores don’t just think they can play with the Florida Gators. They think they can beat them and that’s even without Jay Cutler, who set a zillion or so passing records en route to a Star Wars contract with the Denver Broncos as the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft back in April.
No Cutler? No problem.
Jay Cutler ran pretty well but in his wildest and most imaginative dreams could he run as well as the guy that understudied him last year, this year’s starter Chris Nickson. Nickson’s got over 500 yards rushing, a better than 5-yard per carry average and he flings a pretty nice pass, too. All you have to do is ask soph sensation wide receiver Earl Bennett. He caught 77 balls from Cutler last year. Through eight games, he’s got 54 this year and if he stays all four years at Vandy, it’s doubtful there will be a single Southeastern Conference pass receiving record that he doesn’t own.
Nickson’s already engineered a win over Georgia in Athens and last week he simply carved up the Dookies to the tune of 250 passing yards (two scores) and 150 rushing yards (three more).
He is playing with a ton of confidence and there is nothing worse than facing a confident quarterback with fast, elusive feet that can launch the ball on a laser-like line for critical completions. To put this one in Al McGuire terminology, he is the snake and the task for the Gators Saturday is to cut the head off the snake. Cut off the head of the snake and you cut off the team that thinks it can beat you.
Vandy has a nice running back in Cassen Jackson-Garrison that becomes twice as dangerous with the threat of Nickson in the backfield. Defenses have to be so cognizant of Nickson as a run-pass threat that Jackson-Garrison becomes a very viable weapon because he’s got power enough to pound between the tackles and just enough speed and wiggle to bust one every now and then. He’s particularly dangerous on draw plays and he’s good enough to make a safety commit when the ball is faked his way, leaving Bennett running free in the secondary.
From an offensive standpoint, this Vanderbilt team is far more dangerous for the Gators than the Georgia team that Florida held to 215 yards last week. Florida had the advantage last week of facing a freshman quarterback that is still trying to get his sea legs. Nickson is eight games into the season and he’s playing like he’s been starting and starring in big games all his life. Georgia didn’t have a receiver of the caliber of Bennett and Jackson-Garrison is certainly every bit as good or better than any running back on the Georgia roster.
So the Commodores have weapons which they showcased last week and a couple of weeks before against Georgia. That Vandy could hang 45 on the Dookies isn’t such a big deal. That they could run up and down the field on a pretty good Georgia defense is.
Florida better not come into this game thinking the Commodores are going to roll over or be the least bit fearful of that fierce front seven that has the Gators ranked in the top ten nationally in total defense. If the Gators show up over-confident, this could be a very dangerous game. The Gators have to make sure that Nickson can’t beat them with either his legs or his arm. Do that and they put UF in position to win this game.
Conversely, Florida’s offense gets to go against a defense that ranked number 95 nationally against the running game. After a six-game SEC gauntlet that included five teams ranked among the nation’s top 31 teams defensively, including the very best, LSU, the Gators catch a break against a Vandy team that struggles to stop teams that have solid running games. The Gators may not look like West Virginia when they run the ball, but they’re averaging 157 yards a game and the bulk of that yardage has been achieved without a healthy tailback.
Florida is going to run the football Saturday. You can expect to see a lot of motion from the guys in the slot — Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin — and that should keep the field spread. That is going to make the middle the happening place to be for DeShawn Wynn, who may not be 100 percent but he is healthier than he’s been in weeks.
Wynn also wants the football this week and he wants it a lot. If he doesn’t get tired and if he doesn’t get dinged up again — always a concern since he’s not exactly the most durable guy out there — he can and will pound Vandy between the tackles and that’s going to (a) open the wide game with Harvin and Caldwell on the sweeps and reverses and (b) make it possible for Chris Leak to throw the ball on those mid-range 14-17 yard slant routes to Dallas Baker and Jemalle Cornelius off of play action, the kind of passes that can turn into 30 and 40-yard gainers. Florida’s most productive pass plays are off of play fakes so look for Baker and Cornelius to make some big plays in the passing game.
There is no question that the Gators can score on this Vandy defense. As long as they avoid silly turnovers and they can bring the penalty plague a bit more under control the Gators should be able to hang at least 30-35 points on the Commodores. If they put the ball on the floor or in the hands of the Vandy secondary and give the Commodores a short field to work with, then this game could blow up in Florida’s face.
Some would call this a trap game or a setup game since Florida has so much at stake and Stevie Wonder and his Columbia Chickens coming in to Gainesville next week. That’s Florida’s paybacks are hell game but it’s a game that Florida can’t afford to even think about until Sunday morning. The Gators need to focus on winning against Vandy because that’s the first and most necessary step on the road to Atlanta and the SEC championship game. Win Saturday and win next Saturday and it’s Florida in the title game no matter what happens with Tennessee the rest of the way. A Florida win and a Tennessee loss to LSU Saturday and you get the same result.
The ideal situation for the Gators is to win Saturday in Nashville combined with a Tennessee loss in Knoxville. If that happened, the Gators would be in a party hearty mood when their plane touches down in Gainesville Saturday evening.
Since Florida can’t count on Tennessee losing, however, the Gators have to understand that they have total control of their own destiny. They’ve already beaten the Vols so all they have to do is win two football games and they not only get to the SEC Championship Game but they keep alive hopes for a national title shot that got a tremendous boost Thursday night when West Virginia’s nation’s longest winning streak came to an end. Run the table for the next five weeks and it would take a criminal act to keep the Gators from being one of the teams playing in Arizona on January 8 for the national championship.
National titles and SEC titles are big deals, but the biggest deal is beating Vanderbilt. A national title is impossible if the Gators lose Saturday. An SEC title can’t be achieved without help if Florida stumbles either this week or next week. Florida needs to win out so there’s never a doubt.
It all starts Saturday at 12:30 EST against Vanderbilt. The guess here is that Florida puts on the hard hats and steel toed boots and takes care of business. The guess here is that Florida forces the Commodores to think run first and then sticks the dagger in the heart with the mid-range slants for big yards and touchdowns. Defensively, look for Florida give up an early score or two, then shut Vandy down the rest of the way. Let’s say it’s Florida by something like 31-10.