Instant Analysis: Florida 25, Vanderbilt 19

At this time of year, winning games is the only thing that counts. Say whatever else you want to about the Florida Gators. At the end of the day, they’re winning, and at the end of this day in Nashville, they won as well.

In November, a football team can no longer search for an identity. It has to go to the dance with its pluses and minuses, letting the chips fall where they may. Deficiencies can be masked or minimized to a point, but not forever. Strengths have to be leaned on in tough times.

So in the crucible of college football competition, where do the Gators stand? They stand on the winning side of another SEC football game.

This isn’t a new story or a breaking development: Florida has a lot of warts and generally inattractive qualities. They’ve been the problems that have dogged this team–particularly its offense–throughout 2006. These flaws are part of this team’s identity. The doors could have been blown off–and the Commo-Dores could have been blown out–had Chris Leak not made a series of bad mistakes.

But there’s no use–not really–in talking about the mistakes, because Leak–with quality play calling from Dan Mullen–relied on a strength in adverse situations. That rock of stability and dependability was Dallas Baker, a man the Vandy defense had no answer for. Florida left a lot of points on the board, but the Gators used Baker early and often, trusting the gifted pass catcher with the NFL body to make key plays in huge situations. One of those plays–arguably the single biggest play of the whole afternoon–came one play after Leak had an option pitch tipped for a huge loss. On a 3rd and 19 from the Commodore 35, Baker made a superb grab near the sideline for 19 yards and an inch. The play moved the sticks and set up the Gators’ first true offensive touchdown of the day. By enabling his team to gain a two-possession lead (15-6), Baker ensured that Florida would not have to play the second half from behind. If the Dores had any thoughts about springing an upset or getting the Gators on the defensive, they took a huge hit when Baker made that gargantuan play right after a Gator drive suffered a damaging–but evidently surmountable–blow. Baker’s playmaking ability in money situations carried the Gators and their offense beyond their weaknesses. That’s winning November football.

On defense, you could nitpick and say that Florida stepped off the ol’ gas pedal in the final quarter, but let’s step back and remember that in the final minutes–when the Dores made this game close–Vandy was in a desperate situation. Even with that late Earl Bennett touchdown–which accounted for the final score, 25-19–it still remained that the Commodores, without timeouts, had to recover an onside kick to have any chance of winning. Those worried about Florida’s fourth quarter on defense should recall instead the stop of Cassen Jackson-Garrison on a 4th and 2 with just over six minutes to go. Given the amount of time left in the contest, that was a clutch play, and a much better indicator of the way the Gator defense played for most of the afternoon. Florida occasionally bent, but Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison had a defense that made big plays more often than not when Vandy threatened to score.

Speaking of big plays, the Gators–as with Baker on the offensive side of the ball–had two other prime performers who once again answered the call on defense and special teams as well. You may have heard of these guys: Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson.

Just as Baker proved to be a bastion of dependability for Urban Meyer’s offense, Smith and Nelson made the game-changing, way-above-average plays an inconsistent team must get from its stars come November. Whether it was Nelson’s blocked punt or Smith’s huge interception at the Gator 21 midway through the second quarter, big plays were produced by these two anchors of the secondary. Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson proved to be primary factors in this Gator victory because they changed the game’s momentum in addition to its field-position dynamics. On a day when Vandy needed every psychological lift, it was this ability to kill black-shirted momentum that made all the difference in the world.

At press time (this story is being submitted at 4:45 Eastern time, to be published just minutes later), Tennessee’s Erik Ainge is on the bench due to an aggravation of his injury. The Vols trail LSU 7-0 in a game they seem to have little chance of winning.

Yes, it’s no fun to see a team leave so many points on the field and make so many bad mistakes on a weekly basis. But in the final analysis, this inelegant win in Nashville is likely to lift the Gators to their first SEC East title since 2000.

The Gators are a very imperfect team, but they’re a winning team. If their identity has a lot of flaws, it also has a lot of wins. In two more hours, Florida might have a ticket for Atlanta for the first time in six long years. Problems do exist on this team, and no one will say they’re easy to tolerate. A trip to the Georgia Dome, however, puts all problems in perspective. That’s the ultimate verdict on this Vandy game and–until December 2, at any rate–this breakthrough season in the life of the Florida football program.