Vanderbilt’s surge under former coach James Franklin seems to be distant in the rear-view mirror at this point.
The Commodores are just 9-19 in two-plus seasons under coach Derek Mason, needed overtime to win at Western Kentucky last week, lost to a rebuilding South Carolina team and got run over by Georgia Tech already this fall.
Florida has won 24 of the last 25 meetings in the series, although the Gators needed a late field goal last November to pull out a 9-7 win over Vanderbilt.
The No. 23-ranked Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) come into this meeting, meanwhile, looking to bounce back from a second-half collapse last week at Tennessee and should not be lacking for motivation in this visit to Vanderbilt (2-2, 0-1).
Here’s a closer look at the matchup, which on paper significantly favors Florida:
Florida: Fifth-year senior Austin Appleby is set to make his second straight start for Florida in place of injured redshirt-sophomore Luke Del Rio. The Purdue transfer completed 23-of-39 passes for 296 yards, 3 touchdown and 1 costly interception while doing most of his damage before halftime last week at Tennessee. Appleby played well enough for the Gators and McElwain has been complimentary of his performance. Del Rio, meanwhile, will be available as an emergency option Saturday.
Vanderbilt: Sophomore Kyle Shurmur passed for a career-high 279 yards last weekend in a 31-30 overtime win at Western Kentucky. Overall, he’s averaging 153.5 passing yards per game this fall with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He’s mostly a game manager for a run-first Commodores offense. Shurmur made five starts as a true freshman last year.
Florida: The Gators’ rushing attack had been rolling in Weeks 2-3 as they averaged 249.5 yards per game on the ground against Kentucky and North Texas. That changed dramatically last weekend at Tennessee as they managed just 19 yards in 13 carries after halftime and a season-low 106 overall. Florida needs its rushing attack to get the offense going. Sophomore Jordan Scarlett leads the team with 219 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 attempts, but junior Mark Thompson (40-186-2), sophomore Jordan Cronkrite (21-93-1, 11 catches for 71 yards, 1 TD) and freshman Lamical Perine (31-166-1) will continue to share in the game plan.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores’ top offensive playmaker is redshirt junior Ralph Webb, who leads the SEC and ranks ninth nationally with 472 rushing yards along with 5 touchdowns. He is a Gainesville, Fla., native and needs 613 yards to break Vanderbilt’s career rushing record. Last year against the Gators, Webb scored on a 74-yard touchdown run and totaled 118 yards on the ground. Vanderbilt complements him with redshirt sophomore Khari Blasingame, who has 117 yards and 3 touchdowns this fall.
Florida: Sophomore Antonio Callaway continues to be a game-changing force anytime he’s on the field. He’s up to 17 catches for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns while missing one game with a quad injury. Appleby found him for completions of 51 and 43 yards last week. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Powell (15-145-2 this season) was cleared after being wrongfully ejected in the fourth quarter Saturday for a phantom punch. The Gators have some intriguing receiving depth as well, while junior tight end DeAndre Goolsby (14-138-1) gives them another option in the passing game.
Vanderbilt: Again, the Commodores don’t have a big-play passing attack. Freshman Kalija Lipscomb leads the team with 11 catches for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns. Junior Trent Sherfield had 51 catches for 659 yards and 3 TDs last year, though he has only 8 catches for 86 yards this fall.
Florida: McElwain was not critical of his offensive line after Florida’s second-half collapse last weekend, and only the coaches know for sure how well Appleby executed his pre-snap responsibilities, audible calls, etc., to get the group in the right position. But regardless, it wasn’t a good showing by the unit. Appleby was under consistent pressure in the second half and, as mentioned, the running game completely stalled. The group can play better. Starting right guard Tyler Jordan has missed the last two weeks with an eye injury. He’s cleared to return now and will be available in an emergency role, McElwain said.
Vanderbilt: Redshirt senior left tackle Will Holden (6-foot-6, 312 pounds) and senior center Barrett Gouger (6-4, 305) are experienced linemen, but the rest of the unit is a little greener. Redshirt junior left guard Delando Crooks (6-5, 305), redshirt sophomore right guard Bruno Reagan (6-3, 310) and sophomore right tackle Justin Skule (6-6, 305) round out the group. The Commodores have given up 7 sacks and are averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
Florida: The Gators sustained a significant loss upfront as senior nose tackle Joey Ivie is out 4-5 weeks with an unspecified thumb injury. He had been one of Florida’s steadier performers on the defensive line. Redshirt sophomore Khairi Clark is a capable replacement and redshirt sophomore Taven Bryan will see a bigger role in the rotation as well. The Gators still have key playmakers in redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, redshirt senior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and redshirt junior defensive end Jordan Sherit.
Vanderbilt: Senior Adam Butler anchors the Commodores’ 3-4 front. He’s a veteran of 27 career starts and is joined by junior Nifae Lealao and redshirt-junior Jonathan Wynn. Vanderbilt has just three sacks as a team.
Florida: Redshirt junior Alex Anzalone (26 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and senior Jarrad Davis (25 tackles, 2 sacks) have been mostly excellent this fall for the Gators. The status of senior Daniel McMillian, who operates as the team’s third linebacker, is uncertain due to a neck/trapezius injury.
Vanderbilt: McElwain called Commodores redshirt junior inside linebacker Zach Cunningham the most underrated player in the SEC. Cunningham is a wrecking ball with 16 tackles for loss over his last nine games dating back to last season. In four games this fall, he has 38 tackles and 7 TFLs. He’s the player the Gators need to be aware of when on offense. Redshirt junior outside linebacker Oren Burks is another experience playmaker and has an interception, a team-high 5 pass break-ups and 2 sacks so far.
Florida: Junior Quincy Wilson has allowed just 1 reception and has 2 interceptions this season while taking the next step in his maturation as a lockdown corner. Fellow junior Jalen Tabor got beat for a long touchdown last week at Tennessee, but this pairing is as good as they come. And redshirt senior safety Marcus Maye (22 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 INT) has made his presence felt in every game so far.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores are giving up 274.8 passing yards per game, which is tied for the 108th-most in the country. Junior cornerback Tre Herndon and senior Torren McGaster are both returning starters, but the secondary has been ineffective to this point. Redshirt sophomore free safety LaDarius Wiley is second on the team with 23 tackles, meanwhile.
Florida: After a busy start to the season, rookie kicker Eddy Pineiro has not been called on much the last two weeks. He is 5-of-7 on field goals overall. Redshirt junior punter Johnny Townsend is averaging 49.5 yards per attempt, which is fourth best in the country. Aside from the specialists, the special teams unit struggled last week with a couple of poor decisions by Callaway to try to field punts inside the 5-yard line. The Gators will look to be sharper this week.
Vanderbilt: Redshirt junior kicker Tommy Openshaw is 3-of-4 on field goals with all of his makes coming inside of 40 yards. Freshman punter Sam Loy is averaging 41.3 yards per attempt. And senior Darrius Sims is averaging 24.6 yards on kickoff returns.
Again, 24 wins in the last 25 meetings for Florida says a lot. Yes, the game was close last year in Gainesville. That’s college football. But these are two programs seemingly trending in different directions. The Gators should bounce back from their struggles at Tennessee and assert themselves against Vanderbilt on the way to a more comfortable win this time. But that will require a smart performance from Appleby, who must protect the football and not let turnovers become an equalizing factor in the game.