Focus Turns to Florida

Commodores resume SEC play with matchup against Gators

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the second time this season the Commodores are coming off a win. Now they’re looking for that elusive SEC victory.

Vanderbilt heads to No. 20 Florida having dropped 14 in a row inside the Southeastern Conference. It has seven chances remaining in the 2021 regular season to end that skid starting with a trip to The Swamp at 11 a.m. CT Saturday in Gainesville, Florida.

“The environments are unforgiving on the road. I think that’s also exciting for us. We look forward to playing in those hostile environments. We’ll get up for that,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said. “I feel like for us it’s got to be tightening our game down. I felt like we did that in some ways against UConn where we saw less procedural penalties, fewer self-inflicted wounds. There’s still details to clean up, both in the execution on offense and defense but also in the kicking game and coverage units for us to get a better result this weekend as opposed to the first SEC game (a 62-0 loss to No. 2 Georgia).”

Lea’s squad has a pair of wins out of five tries heading into the meat of its slate. Both victories came via a game-winning field goal by Joseph Bulovas after late scores by the opposition, the most recent of which was a 30-28 triumph over Connecticut on Saturday.

The losses have not been as close.

Vanderbilt’s three defeats have been by an average of 33.7 points (inflated somewhat by a 62-0 loss to No. 2 Georgia). The Dores (2-3, 0-1 SEC) have also been outscored 51-9 in the second half of those losses.

So despite the good vibes and joy pulsing through the Vandy facility early this week, Lea knows his team still has a long road ahead over the next eight weeks.

“When you get the result you want the mood lightens. We took an honest look at that UConn game (Monday) with the team and celebrated where we felt like we pushed into the areas competitively that we wanted to. Then also looked at the things that we did that prevented us from closing that game out sooner. There’s learning in that,” Lea said. “But I loved where the guys were (Monday) in meetings. We’ll find out (Tuesday) in practice what the level of compete (is), the spirit and enthusiasm. But hopefully we’re building on the week of prep that we had last week because I thought that was our best and we’re scheduled to have a great practice (Tuesday) afternoon.

“I’m expecting that from the players and they’re excited to go on the road and to have a chance to battle it out in SEC play.”

Florida began the season with four straight games in the Sunshine State, one of which was a 31-29 loss at home to No. 1 Alabama. The Gators (3-2, 1-2 SEC) are coming off a 20-13 loss at Kentucky.

Head coach Dan Mullen’s team is one of the most-penalized teams in the nation, but he also has college football’s No. 3 rushing offense (292.2 yards per game). Florida’s defense has registered 18 sacks this season.

Quarterback Emory Jones has rushed for 87.6 yards per game and thrown for 174.2.

“They’re going to stress you out by stretching you and putting you in space and tucking the ball with the quarterback and running,” Lea said. “There’s a systems element to that where we have to make sure we’re accounting for him in a numbers game but also there’s a fundamental, technical aspect of that.

“We have to be really disciplined in how we align, how we key, what our post-snap movement looks like to give ourselves the best chance to collapse space around the ball and limit big plays.”

Saturday’s matchup will be televised live by the SEC Network.

• Vandy senior linebacker Anfernee Orji ranks 30th nationally in tackles for loss per game with 1.3.

Will Sheppard, a sophomore wide receiver for the Commodores, ranks 45th nationally with 5.4 receptions per game.

• Vanderbilt trails the all-time series against Florida 42-10-2.

• The Commodores have dropped seven in a row to the Gators having last won 34-17 in 2013 in Gainesville. 

• As a Commodore fullback, Lea was on the short end of three matchups with the Gators losing 21-17 in 2002, 35-17 in 2003 and 34-17 in 2004.

• A victory Saturday would make Vanderbilt 3-3 for the first time since 2018.

• The Commodores’ last SEC win was Oct. 19, 2019 against Missouri. Their last SEC road victory was Oct. 27, 2018 at Arkansas.

• Vanderbilt’s next victory will be the 1,300th in program history.

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.