What to expect from Florida against Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt hired Derek Mason away from Stanford to build a program in that mold east of the Mississippi. The idea was solid, as they’re both schools with high academic standards.

There were two problems with the theory. One, Stanford actually has some postwar football success to sell, making the recruiting part somewhat easier. Two, line-up-and-mash-them offense doesn’t work for lesser-talented teams in the SEC because everyone has size on the lines. See also: Bret Bielema at Arkansas.

Mason has the blessing and curse of low program expectations that allowed him to change directions in this, his seventh year. He hired Todd Fitch to bring the spread back to Nashville, and they’ve been riding freshman quarterback Ken Seals through the transition.

Fitch spent most of the last dozen years as OC for Skip Holtz in various locations, and the three years he didn’t he spent at Boston College under Steve Addazio. Holtz runs a spread but has been around long enough that he used to (poorly) run pro-set offenses for his father in the early 2000s at South Carolina. Combine Fitch’s experience under Holtz and Addazio with all the tight ends left over from the Stanford East days and you end up with something that may remind you of Dan Mullen’s offense.

Not in efficacy. Oh, no. Not at all. But, it’s still a spread that’s not afraid of using two tight ends and doing some power running. Seals is not a runner, though he’s not a pocket statue either, so you won’t get the quarterback run aspect of Mullen’s scheme. Of course, Florida doesn’t really have that these days either.

As we all know by now, 2020 was a bad year to change scheme. The results at the beginning of the year were correspondingly awful. Dismal offensive performance in the opener against Texas A&M is forgivable, but putting up just seven points each on LSU and South Carolina looks increasingly worse.

Like UF, Vandy had a COVID-caused break after three games. Also like the Gators, they came out the other side having fixed some things.

The Comodores’ first three games saw them under 300 total yards with no more than 4.15 yards per play in every game. In each of the three subsequent games, they’ve been above 400 total yards and five yards per play.

The ‘Dores have been excruciatingly close to getting their first win in that time. Most of it, anyway. They were never going to keep pace in the 54-21 loss to Ole Miss, though turning it over three times didn’t help.

They really should have defeated Mississippi State the next week. They outgained the Bulldogs 478-204 in by far their best defensive showing of the season, but they turned it over five times without getting any back. Then last week they almost kept pace with Kentucky and lost by three, though VU’s final touchdown came with less than a minute to go. They couldn’t get the onside kick, and that was that.

As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, the real problem with the team is the defense.

They held Mike Leach in check as every team after LSU has, but the next-best performance was when they allowed 6.8 yards per play to Texas A&M. Every other opponent got up above seven per play, and Ole Miss and Kentucky both exceeded eight yards per play. Florida’s offense should be able to do everything it wants to without breaking much of a sweat.

Making matters worse, the unit has only come up with six turnovers on the year. Three of them came in the first game; that, and a low number of possessions is how they only lost 17-12 to A&M. With the offense turning it over 14 times so far, the team is at a miserable -8 in turnover margin through six games.

Vandy is pretty mediocre at running the ball, so their chances to score mostly rest on the arm of Seals. Even as he doesn’t have any dynamic targets to throw to, he’s completing two thirds of his passes. He’s under seven yards per attempt, which tells you he’s hitting a lot of short and safe throws, but Seals is not one of the classic Bad Vandy quarterbacks who you wonder if he’s ever played quarterback before.

I’m not ready to tab him the next Jay Cutler — for the youngins, he’s the one, actual good quarterback they ever had while being Bad Vandy — but he’s not helpless. I don’t expect Florida to pitch a shutout like it did last year because Seals is better than anyone they had last year behind center. It’ll only take a drive or two for you to see it and agree.

However there’s absolutely nothing the Vandy defense has done that suggests they’ll hang for any amount of time in this game. As long as Kyle Trask plays, the Gators should score on pretty much every drive if they play up to their ability.

The only thing that will hold the Gators back is if they can’t get up for the game. The best UF teams can have trouble doing so in Nashville, like the ’96 squad that went to Vandy and only won 28-21. This edition might be the toughest challenge yet, with chilly (by Florida standards) temperatures in the 60s with a noon Eastern kick and almost no one in the stands.

I suspect Mullen has been hammering on his Gator Standard talking points because hitting that standard is the biggest challenge this week.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2