Vandy Opponent Preview: Florida

Vanderbilt opens the final third of its 2015 schedule with a trip to The Swamp to take on Florida. With a very winnable game comping up next week against Kentucky this will be an interesting test of the ‘Dores ability to pick up an SEC win. If the black and gold do not have a league win by this point then expect the pressure to be growing daily on Derek Mason.

2014 Record: 7-5 (4-4 in the SEC. Third in SEC East.) – Beat East Carolina 28-20 in the Birmingham Bowl.

Series Record: Florida leads the series 36-10-2 in a series dating back to 1945. The ‘Dores actually won the first three games of this series, while Florida rattled off 22 straight wins between 1989 and 2012.

Last Meeting: The meeting last year was a revenge game for Florida who needed to beat a Vanderbilt squad who beat them the year before on their home field for the first time since 1945. After a 7-7 first quarter the Gators took complete control outscoring the ‘Dores 27-3 the rest of the way to win by a final of 34-10. The standout player offensively for the Gators was quarterback Treon Harris who threw for 215 yards and ran for two scores.

Head Coach: This is the second game running where the Commodores will be facing a school with a new head coach for 2015. After the Will Muschamp era in Florida ended in nothing more than a string of disappointments, the Gators have turned to Jim McElwain (photo above) to inject some life into a program which should be in contention to win the SEC East on a yearly basis. McElwain inherited an awful Colorado State program in 2012 and took them from a 4-8 program that year to a 10-2 record in 2014.

Spring News: Florida spent much of the spring shorthanded as injuries to key players stopped McElwain from seeing what his starting lineup would actually look like during the month of practices. At one point it looked like the spring game would need to be cancelled, but McElwain cobbled enough bodies together to create two sides and the match was played. Interestingly this may have worked out as a net positive for the Gators as new players, or older players who had not impressed under the previous regime, were able to perform with a clean slate.

Projected Strengths: Muschamp had some issues at Florida, but creating suffocating defenses was not one of them. The Gators finished in the top-10 defenses in the country in each of the last four seasons and no let down is expected here. The unquestioned strength of the defense is a secondary which is anchored by two-time All-SEC cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. Hargreaves is so good he rarely gets thrown at and in total last season he was responsible for just one touchdown and even that was conceded to Amari Cooper, the best receiver in college football.

The defensive front seven may have some holes to fill, but the level of recruitment under Muschamp cannot be ignored when looking at the underclassmen who will be stepping in. If linebackers Antonio Morrision and Jarrad Davis can recover from late season knee injuries to be back to anything like their best then this unit will be dominant. Even if they cannot then a defensive line led by Jon Bullard and with exciting redshirt freshmen Taven Bryan and Kharir Clark will still be among the best out there.

Projected Weaknesses: It is no exaggeration to say that the Gators lost more on the offensive line than any other team in the country coming into 2015. Offensive guard Trip Thurman started ten games for Florida last fall, while the rest of the line starters, no matter who they are, combined for exactly zero starts. The team finished the spring with just six healthy scholarship linemen and with both starting ability and depth being a concern it is vital that incoming freshman Martez Ivy lives up to his billing as the nation’s number one offensive line recruit immediately.

Florida will also have issues at the skill positions on offense. McElwain has yet to decide on a starting quarterback with both Will Grier and Treon Harris expected to play in the season opener. Harris has the dual threat ability, while Grier seems best fit for an offense which relies on the power run and high-percentage throws underneath by the quarterback. Just who is going to catch these passes is also an issue as outside of receiver Demarcus Robinson and tight end Jake McGee there are questions all over the place on the two deep.

Prediction: Florida is talented enough to beat almost anyone in the country based purely on the strength of the defense alone. The offense, though, is somewhere between a train wreck and a work in progress, and it will more than likely fluctuate between the two throughout the course of the year. If Vandy can catch the Gators on a day where the offense is off, and if Mason builds the sort of defense that is expected, then Florida will not score in bunches and anything can happen.

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