Week #10 sees Florida trying to remain in the hunt for the SEC East title, and a shot at the BCS championship game. Standing a 7-1, Florida's lone loss was two weekends ago in a 27-17 defeat to Auburn. Florida has just one SEC game left after Vandy, at home to South Carolina.
Vanderbilt comes into this game a familiar 17 point underdog. But, unlike seasons past, Vandy still has a lot to play for in November. With three games remaining, Vandy can make their first bowl game in more than two decades with two wins. VU will likely be favored against Kentucky, so the Commodores will need to pull at least one big upset against UF or Tennessee to make history.
Vandy remains the only SEC team with a running back and a quarterback among the SEC's top 10 rushing leaders. As a result, Florida and Vandy are dead even in yards per game on the ground, at 157 yards each.
Still, Florida's averages three more points per game (26.5 vs. 23.2), and 50 more yards: Florida's passing game owns a clear advantage against VU, at 227 yards per game vs. Vandy's 174.
Florida's defense allows just 67 yards per game, so something has to give today. Vanderbilt's lack of a bye week has begun to take its toll, as many key starters on both sides of the ball are either walking wounded or out for the season. Among those are All-SEC safety Reshard Langford and standout defensive end Curtis Gatewood. No word as of now how much either are hoping to play today.
1. VU OFFENSE VS. UF DEFENSE
Mike Rapp: Not many secrets here. If Nickson has a repeat of his phenomenal performace at Duke, Vandy can do some serious damage to Florida and come out with the win. But, Florida's D-line is something special, and unlike winless (and hapless) Duke, they certainly have the ability to make you pay for mistakes. Advantage: Florida.
Tommy Crockett: Vandy's offense seemed to come alive in Wallace-Wade last weekend. Chris Nickson avoided the Duke defense with ease. That's not going to happen this Saturday. With the likes of Derrick Harvey and Ray McDonald testing the Vandy ends this a test light years more difficult than the Commodores saw in Durham. If Chris seemed to find his passing rhythm then this Saturday will put that newly found talent to the extreme test with Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson contesting every throw. The UF defensive line is quick and powerful, a lethal combination, so if the Dores wish to continue racking up yards with their balanced attack much depends on how well the Vandy offensive line can stand up to a defensive line that had problems getting to the Vanderbilt backfield in 2005.
Chris Lee: The Gators are big, fast, and physical up front--much like another team (Michigan) that gave Vandy fits earlier in the year. These Gators are not quite as good, but then again, the Vandy offensive line wasn't quite this banged up at that time. From a Vanderblt perspective, that's what worries me the most about this game.
Offensively, Nickson needs to bring his "A" game. Vandy cannot afford to commit more than two turnovers and have a chance to win. With the line banged up and Florida likely to bring the heat, I look for a lot of quick throws to Earl Bennett to see if he can make some plays. With an aggressive, fast-pursuing front four, I wonder if we may not see the return of Bennett on some reverses with a pass option as well.
2. UF OFFENSE VS. VU DEFENSE
MR: Injuries are easily the biggest concern for Vandy here. If Langford and Gatewood can't be factors, Vandy will rely on young and unproven players to stop one of the SEC's best offenses. That said, Florida is not the fun and gun it was under Spurrier. Vanilla is the flavor of their day. VU has faced better offenses this year and come out ahead. The edge goes to Florida, but not by as much as the prognosticators might think.
TC: The Vandy defense is (again) the biggest surprise of this season. Since Florida has not exactly dominated any team this season in the rushing category I don't expect to see DeShawn Wynn and Kestahn Moore bursting through the heart of the Vandy line, but the UF spread is going to cause problems for the Commodore backers and linemen. With Leak hitting on over 61% of his passes I suspect the Vanderbilt corners are going to spend a large part of the game on the field and chasing Baker, Cornelius and Caldwell to and fro. Vandy's defensive backfield is now quick and hard hitting. Langford would start for Florida and this reporter feels he is itching to prove it to the rest of the world.
CL: The Commodores have slipped significantly in recent weeks, and need a return to prior form to have a chance to win. Vandy has relied a lot on forced turnovers, but the problem here is that Chris Leak's an efficient passer who doesn't make a lot of bad throws.
Florida's controlled offense will likely try to pick Vandy apart with short throws, which is exactly where the Commodores are vulnerable. Throw in talents like Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow running the ball, and they can be scary to defend.
However, the Gators also pick up a ton of penalties, and so the Commodores may catch a break or two as UF is prone to stopping itself. Much also depends on Vandy's health. If Langford and Gatewood can't go, I have a hard time seeing Vandy hold the Gators under 30.
3. KEY MATCHUP
MR: Florida wideout Dallas Baker against whomever Vandy puts out there at corner. Baker leads UF with six touchdown receptions, and has caught a TD in seven of his last 10 games. Blown coverages will definitely prove fatal today for VU.
TC: My key match-up will be Gatewood and Booker against the UF QB tandem of Leak and Tebow. While Tebow won't see the lion's share of snaps my best guess is that the Commodore QB rushers will feel the need to stuff him if he strays outside the guards and Jon Goff will be on a mission should he try the middle.
Earl Bennett has been on fire of late and it might be suspected after the way he burned the Gators in 2005 he'll have two men covering him most of the game. Look to George Smith, Marlon White and Sean Walker matching up against Reggie Lewis, Reggie Nelson or Ryan Smith as it is suspected the coverage will be ever changing throughout the game. Let's not forget Chris Hetland versus the Vandy Special Teams assuming Coach Meyer sticks with the inaccurate walk-on.
CL: Nickson vs. Gator defensive backs Ryan Smith and Reggie Nelson. These guys are playmakers, and Nickson doesn't need to miss a throw with the two of them around.
4. VANDERBILT WINS IF...
MR: VU needs turnovers to play a role for them today. And, they simply cannot have any more of these shanked punts and hooked field goals to beat the #5 ranked team in America.
TC: As I see it the only way Vandy wins is if they somehow, someway limit the Florida offense to around 17 points or less. Vandy must keep the Gator offense off the field as much as possible. To accomplish this feat Vandy will have to establish the run and control the short passing game completely. If Vanderbilt must punt more than five times there is little hope for victory. If Vanderbilt can mount first downs to the tune of somewhere in the mid-twenties the prospect for victory improves incrementally as the Gator first down count stays in the teens.
CL: Langford and Gatewood are healthy enough to play effectively, Nickson accounts for 275 yards of total offense, the Commodores win the turnover battle by two or more, and the 'Dores don't have any major screw-ups in the red zone.
5. UF WINS IF...
MR: Things go according to plan. Darlron Spead has been one of the big play makers for Vandy this year. Watch for him today in the secondary and on special teams.
TC: Florida will have this game sewn up if they contain the Vandy quarterback and keep the Vandy ground game under 100 yards. Of course, this must be coupled with keeping the Vanderbilt defense on the field as long as possible. While I've raved elsewhere about the vast improvement of the Dore defense (top to bottom) the problem here is depth. Vandy simply can't spend most of the day on the field defensively and have any shot at beating Florida. Conversely Florida will win if they can control the clock and tempo.
CL: There were too many "if's" in my "Commodore victory" scenario. I like Vandy's chances much-better if they were healthy, but somehow, I have a bad feeling they may not be. It will take Vandy's best game of the year to win, and against a great Gator team, I foresee too many of the conditions for a Commodore win not happening.
6. WHAT'S AT STAKE?
MR: At some point, Coach Johnson has to string together more than one impressive SEC win per season. With several key recruits in attendance again, and the game now on TV, this is yet another chance for VU to make what would be a massive statement. For Florida, a loss would be devistating to their SEC and national title hopes.
TC: Florida must win if they wish to stay in the hunt for a possible National Championship or a secondary BCS berth. Two loses and they could tumble out of the top eight BCS standings and fall into the Outback or lesser bowl instead of a possible bout in the Fiesta. With West Virginia stumbling Thursday night if UF can win out they hold a front-runner's card for the BCS Championship Game. If Vanderbilt wants to keep playing after their final game of the season they must win two of the last three games. Why not start that process now with a win over a top four BCS standings team?
CL: A bowl bid becomes a distinct possibility if the Commodores can sneak a win. Florida has a chance to sneak into the national title game by running the table from here on, which means a Gator let-down is unlikely.