GAINESVILLE — It’s official.
The Gators are the SEC East champions for the first time since 2009. Florida overcome a sloppy performance to rally for a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday to clinch the division.
What did we learn from the win? Here’s what.
1. Ahead of schedule: Who could have predicted this? The Gators punched their ticket to the SEC championship game in Jim McElwain’s first season at the helm. It’s the first time Florida will represent the SEC East in Atlanta since 2009. The plan to “restore the order” is definitely moving fast, probably faster than McElwain even expected it to. This is a program that was 11-13 over the past two seasons. This is a program that lost to Georgia Southern at home less than two years ago. This is a program that recorded more than eight wins in just one of its past five season. Here we are nine games into the McElwain era, and the Gators already have eight wins with three regular-season games, a conference championship game and a bowl game to go. Pretty crazy stuff.
2. David Sharpe is important: Who knew the sophomore left tackle was so important? I mean a left tackle is very important, but Florida’s offensive line looked inept without the injured Sharpe (foot). The injury forced Mason Halter to slide from right tackle to left tackle, and freshman Fred Johnson to start at right tackle. Vanderbilt’s defense dominated Florida up front, limiting the Gators to 93 rushing yards on 34 carries. The Commodores also disrupted Florida’s passing game, finishing with three sacks and six quarterback hurries. The Gators were struggling so much, they resorted to putting a hobbled Sharpe in the game. But Sharpe was not 100 percent and it showed. Florida better hope the 6-foot-6, 359-pound Sharpe gets healthy fast.
3. Townsend is a weapon: Florida’s punter might have even been its most dangerous weapon Saturday. Johnny Townsend booted three of his five punts inside the 20 and averaged 44.4 yards per punt against Vanderbilt. It was a big reason why the Gators won the field position battle, starting seven of their 13 drives in Vanderbilt territory. Florida’s average starting field position was its 46-yard line, while Vanderbilt’s was its 16-yard line. That makes a huge difference. As bad as the field goal kicking has been this season, Townsend has been great. For the season, the sophomore is averaging 44 yards per punt and has had 17 of his 43 punts land inside the 20.
4. The curious case of Demarcus Robinson: This guy is so talented. In fact, Demarcus Robinson led the team with nine catches for 106 yards against Vanderbilt despite starting the game on the bench. The rest of the team combined for four catches for 59 yards. Just minutes before the game, we learned Chris Thompson would start for Robinson due to an undisclosed reason. While Saturday was a perfect example of Robinson’s potential, it was also an example of what makes the junior so frustrating. After trying to shake a few defenders, he fumbled the ball during a critical drive early in the fourth quarter. Robinson is known to be careless with the football.
“You guys have seen this guy play for how long now and his ball security is something we talk every single day about,” McElwain said. “There’s no excuse for the fumble. Now, it’s his choice to carry the ball that way. He gives us a chance because he’s a good player, but he’s also got to understand that as you go through life, it’s about doing things right to maybe help the people around you. It ain’t always about you. He’s a good player. He cares. Hopefully, he’s learned.”
5. Kicking is a problem: The Gators live to see another day despite their kicking woes once again. Actually, a field goal is what won Florida the game, as Austin Hardin knocked in a 43-yard field goal with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter to put the Gators on top. But the problem can’t be ignored. Kicking is a glaring issue for the Gators. Before making the field goal, Hardin had missed four consecutive field goals and Florida had not made a field goal since Oct. 3 against Ole Miss. His backup Neil MacInnes, who is now known as “The Dentist” because of his area of study, missed an extra point against Vanderbilt. If Hardin had not made the game-winner, Florida would have lost 7-6 because of the missed extra point. The Gators have now missed four extra points this season and we still have three regular-season games to go. Kicking is a major weakness for Florida and it likely won’t be fixed until the team gets some new guys in during the offseason.