And the Gators?
They're carrying around the emotional baggage of a season gone bad enough that Ron Zook has been fired as the coach. Throw in the injury report from last Saturday's Georgia game and suddenly this trip is taking on the kind of pressure that would normally be associated for an SEC opponent that makes it to a bowl game more than once every generation.
It wasn't supposed to be this way at all. When the season began the Gators were thought to be capable of challenging for the SEC East championship and Vanderbilt was expected to show wholesale improvement with the return of 20 starters. While Florida was talking about championships, Vanderbilt was talking about its first winning season since Watson Brown was the coach.
Florida is 4-4 with three games decided in the last two minutes and the fourth loss by a single touchdown. It is a season of frustrating inconsistency for the Gators who truly should have won all eight games but instead have been plagued by a lack of big plays when games are on the line and that is what has cost Zook his job.
The Commodores have already clinched another losing season. They are 2-6 with one of those wins over Division 1-AA Eastern Kentucky. Of course, the other win is over Mississippi State, the team that sent Florida's season into the tank.
Now the Gators are on life support, hoping some faith healer can resuscitate a season that has gone frightfully bad. Vanderbilt is its usual lost ball in the high weeds, but this is a chance for the Commodores to break out of the cruise control losing cycle to ring up the first win over the Gators since that 1988 game when Florida went to Nashville so beaten up physically that only five defensive linemen dressed for the game.
Florida is so beaten up physically that the Gators will play this game with only two healthy linebackers, both true freshmen. Brandon Siler is a starter who keeps improving every game, but fellow freshman Javier Estopinan has seen very little action. Pencil in E-Stop for a bunch of plays on Saturday.
Among the three other scholarship linebackers, Earl Everett will play but he's coming off a concussion. Todd McCullough played well against Georgia, but he's got two dinged shoulders and his ankle still isn't 100 percent after that high ankle sprain in the preseason. Travis Harris played against Georgia with a high ankle sprain and he's still not 100 percent.
At running back, Ciatrick Fason will play but he's got bruises on top of bruises. He'll be backed up by Skyler Thornton because DeShawn Wynn's sprained his knee.
There are other bumps, bruises and sprains to go with the kind of physical tiredness that comes from playing eight straight weeks. How important would that open date have been when the season opener was re-scheduled for mid-October instead of after the Florida State game?
Then throw in the emotional roller coaster of the past two weeks. Zook got fired one week ago after losing to Mississippi State and he's staying the course, finishing out the season. It took the Gators half the game against Georgia to get emotionally into the flow of things. Once they got their heads into it, they played very well, dominating the second half, but when the game got close, Florida returned to its inconsistent ways on defense and gave up a clinching touchdown. Defeat was snatched once again from the jaws of victory.
The loss to Georgia is just another emotional dagger in the heart of a team that is quickly running out of tourniquets. Can Florida find a way to stop the bleeding long enough to win in Nashville? Can the Gators summon the emotions necessary to fully focus on the things they have to do to win? Or will the combination of drained emotions and disappointment bring on one more defeat?
Zook was duly proud that his team didn't quit on him against Georgia, and it's doubtful that they will quit against Vanderbilt. Quitting really isn't the issue. The coaches and the kids have too much pride for that. The question is can they stabilize their once again drained emotions enough to summon the focus they need to win against a Vanderbilt team that will be seeing this as a chance for a win?
Wins don't come easy at Vandy and presidential campaigns may turn civil before the Commodores have another opportunity tailor made for a win over the Florida Gators. The Commodores have a real chance to pull the plug on Florida's season.
In most years, beating Vanderbilt is just what is expected. It's never a question that the Gators will beat up on Vandy, just a question of final margin. This isn't most years, though. This is a year when beating Vanderbilt can be the catalyst for salvaging the pride of a season gone bad. Conversely, losing will put the Gators on the precipice of their first losing season since 1979.
This is the kind of pressure no one expected back in August, but back in August, there were visions of championships dancing in the heads of the Gators. Now instead of envisioning a championship, the Gators are in serious need of a visit by Benny Hinn. It may take a faith healer to salvage what's left of this season.
(Editor: For those of you not aware of it, Benny Hinn is a well known evangelist who believes in healing, hence the reference to his name by Franz)