Vanderbilt has won only one of the last 25 meetings with Florida, grabbing a lopsided win in 2013 to snap what was then a 22-game losing streak in the series.
The Commodores put a scare into the Gators last November, though.
Florida needed a 43-yard field goal by Austin Hardin — and there weren’t many positive field goal moments for the team in general last fall — with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter to pull out a 9-7 win and clinch the SEC East title.
It’s hard to imagine these two teams playing another close game like that when they meet again Saturday in Nashville, but it’s college football — anything can happen.
Vanderbilt (2-2, 0-1 SEC) needed overtime to slip past Western Kentucky last weekend and picked up its other win over Middle Tennessee while taking a tough loss to South Carolina in its only SEC game so far and getting run over by Georgia Tech.
Meanwhile, No. 23 Florida (3-1, 1-1) comes into this game looking to make a statement after a second-half collapse at Tennessee last week.
For a closer look at this Vanderbilt team, we go to a reporter who knows the program best.
Adam Sparks, the Commodores beat writer for The Tennessean in Nashville, answered some questions to offer more insight into Florida’s opponent:
1. Within the fan base, what is the confidence in coach Derek Mason and the direction of the program at this point?
Sparks: “Confidence is not very high because most fans saw these first four game as an opportunity to go 3-1, or perhaps even 4-0 (I was in the 3-1 camp). And considering last week’s OT win at Western Kentucky, the team was one play away from being 1-3. So suffice to say that most Commodores fans aren’t too happy right now, (and) the rally and dramatic victory at WKU didn’t calm down some critics. Getting to a bowl game seems unlikely now because Vandy would have to pull off an upset or two in SEC play to reach six wins. There are pockets of optimism, but Mason’s defense — a strength last season — must perform better and soon.”
2. What sense do you get from running back and Gainesville native Ralph Webb as to any extra motivation he may feel when playing Florida?
Sparks: “There is extra motivation for him because Florida didn’t really recruit him very hard at all, but Ralph doesn’t talk about it much. Rushing for 118 yards and a TD in a near-upset in The Swamp last season was meaningful to him, but playing the Gators in Nashville isn’t as significant. He has already proven quite a bit. Webb, a junior, is on pace to break Vanderbilt’s career rushing record by season’s end. And he’s led the SEC in rushing for three straight weeks, which says a lot (within) an offense still struggling to find a consistent passing game to complement him.”
3. What has quarterback Kyle Shurmur shown this season?
Sparks: “He’s shown improvement and ball security, which are really the two major points of emphasis from the coaches in the preseason. Shurmur’s passing yards have increased each of the four games this season, and he has shown steady progress in all the intricacies of the offense. For the most part, he has made good decisions with the football, throwing it away when needed and settling for punts when there’s been nothing there. Shurmur still has a long way to go, but Vanderbilt has the fewest turnovers in the SEC and the best red-zone percentage in the nation. It’s a good starting point for a young QB.”
4. While Florida has dominated the series historically, how much is Vanderbilt using its narrow loss to the Gators last year as a source of confidence heading into the matchup?
Sparks: “I think there’s certainly some confidence gained from that game. Vandy stayed in that one with good defense and no turnovers. The Commodores feel like both are possible this time around, as well. Granted, Florida’s roster is different, but I think there’s some curiosity — at least from Vandy’s fan base — about the mood of the Gators coming into Nashville. Are they angry and motivated by last week’s loss at Tennessee or ripe for a letdown in a potential trap game? Either way, Vandy must play near-flawless football to win it.”
5. What is your expectation for how the game will play out?
Sparks: “I think there’s a formula for Vandy to have a shot in this game, and it’s similar to the way it nearly pulled it out last season. However, I see Florida’s offense hitting more big plays this time around, and Vandy’s offense could struggle sustaining drives — especially if the Gators can limit Webb on early downs and get a strong pass rush with only their front-four on third down. Florida 24, Vandy 13.“