Writers pick Vanderbilt vs. Florida strengths

The Florida football team has disposed of their most hated Eastern Division rivals, Tennessee and Georgia. The Gators have beaten their remaining conference opponents, Vanderbilt and South Carolina by a combined record of 46-12-5 (.730), including a perfect 26-0 since the new SEC format was put into place. Winning the divisional crown is a very real possibility, but only if the Gators start with an act of piracy against the Commodores.

VandyMania's Brent Wiseman and Gator Country Senior Columnist Mark McLeod share their analysis and picks for Saturday night's Vanderbilt/Florida game.

Vanderbilt offensive line vs Florida defensive front

Brent's Analysis Vanderbilt's offensive line play was excellent in the first four games, providing time for Jay Cutler to set up in the pocket, as well as space for the running game to operate. But the most recent four games have seen a reversal of fortunes. Against MTSU, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, the Commodore offense has had its struggles up front. Right guard Mac Pyle went down for the season in the LSU game, and Vandy has had to shift linemen around to make up for his loss. At present the team is down to eight healthy bodies.

Jeremy Mincey and Marcus Thomas might both make my All-SEC team if we voted today. As I see it, this is the matchup that determines this game. If Vanderbilt is able to protect Jay Cutler, and the Commodores are able to sustain drives and convert on third downs, then the SEC's leading passer is capable of working some magic against Florida. Under that scenario, the Commodores can stay in the game until the fourth quarter and perhaps win it on a late field goal (much the way South Carolina hung around last week with Tennessee).

However, if Vanderbilt loses the war in the trenches against Florida's defensive line-- which leads the SEC in sacks, a worrisome stat for Vandy-- then Florida could put the game away early. Cutler is tough as nails and is not easily rattled-- but by applying relentless pressure, LSU provided the blueprint and proved it can be done.

Mark's Analysis: The Vanderbilt offensive line has struggled in some facet in their last three games. Not surprisingly, those struggles have come against two very good defenses (Georgia and LSU) and one up and coming unit in South Carolina. The ‘Dores ran for only 41 yards (1.2 ypc) against the Gamecocks and 25 yards (.96 ypc) against the Tigers. They were very effective running for 150 yards (3.8 ypc) against Georgia. Furthermore, Vanderbilt has given up 12 of their 19 sacks in those three games.

The Florida defense has received a tremendous boost from the return of Ray McDonald and the emergence of Jarvis Moss. Marcus Thomas, Joe Cohen, and Steven Harris are also playing the best football of their careers. Their performance against Georgia wasn't dominating, but they when the ‘Dawgs sustained a drive it usually met with trouble in the red zone. It took a trick play to get them their one touchdown.

I would expect the Florida defense to manufacture ways to get after Jay Cutler. He is the big threat of the Vanderbilt offense. He's been successful when given the opportunity to sit comfortably in the pocket. Cutler has had eleven carries in each of the past two games. I wouldn't be surprised to see a few rolling pockets to give Cutler additional time. I would also expect Bobby Johnson to run a few draws and misdirection plays to take advantage of the Gators speed.

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Brent's Advantage: Florida

Mark's Advantage: Florida

Vanderbilt skills positions vs Florida secondary

Brent's Analysis: Jay Cutler is the engine that makes the Vanderbilt offense go, but this year he is finally surrounded by some skill-position players who complement his abilities. Erik Davis, Marlon White and Earl Bennett might be the most talented receiver threesome Vanderbilt has put on the field since the early 1980's. Tight end Dustin Dunning has made clutch third-down catches all season. And watch out for Steven Bright, who is finally coming into his own as an all-purpose back.

Jeff Jennings, who starts at tailback, is a 230-pound load who hits the hole hard. In the red zone, he's the designated scorer. Cassen Jackson-Garrison, who splits the carries with Jennings, is a more cautious runner, but has proven more capable of turning a short run into a long one. Still, good defenses have been able recently to stuff Vandy's running game; LSU almost held it to negative rushing yardage. Curiously, Vandy ran the ball fairly well on Georgia, one of the SEC's best defenses.

Florida's secondary is talented and experienced. Still, the Gators have not faced an outstanding passer since Brodie Croyle-- and we all remember what happened in that game. Jay Cutler has the ability to make even good pass defenses look silly. You can expect him to try plenty of play-action passes, and test Florida deep at least three or four times. If his receivers hang onto the ball, a 250- to 300-yard outing is not out of the question.

Mark's Analysis: The Commodores are the top rated passing team in the conference. Quarterback Jay Cutler is the sits atop the SEC in passing and total offense, and has proven a very worthy candidate of his selection as the Coaches Pre-season All-SEC quarterback. While I respect Cutler's abilities, I too thought that too bold pick at the time.

Regardless, Cutler has not been as successful against SEC opponents. He torched the Carolina defense with a 29 of 4, 339 yard performance. However, the Commodores passing game clearly struggled against teams with a strong front seven, LSU and Georgia. Cutler hit 16 of 60 for 287 yards against the pair, while tossing three interceptions.

Vanderbilt has five quality receivers in Erik Davis, Steven Bright, Dustin Dunning, Marlon White, and Earl Bennett. Davis secured six receptions against the Gators a year ago. H-back Steven Bright, a former quarterback, who at 6-4 236 has some characteristics, without the speed of former Arkansas' receiver Matt   Jones. Tight end Dustin Dunning was a big factor against the Gamecocks. True freshman wide receiver Earl Bennett had an eye popping 16 receptions for 204 yards and one touchdown against Carolina two weeks ago.

This will be the best match-up on the field Saturday night. The Gators must account for tight end Dustin Dunning and all everything playmaker Steven Bright on every play. LSU hammered Cutler, while tying up Davis, Bennett, Bright, and Dunning. The Tigers held them to a combined six receptions. If Florida can play copycat, they could have similar results. Vanderbilt has to make something good happen for them early, so watch for the big hit or some razzle-dazzle.

Florida's defense kept the Georgia big plays bottled up, thanks in large part to Reggie Nelson's stellar play at safety. The ‘Dawgs hit a trick play for a score, but that was one heck of a play by quarterback Joe Tereshinski. No disrespect to the Commodores, but I doubt their receivers have anything to offer in terms of speed, quickness, routes, blocking, and overall athleticism that the Gators haven't already encountered. It's up to the Florida secondary to play heads up football.

Brent's Advantage: Vanderbilt

Mark's Advantage: Slightly Florida

Florida offensive line vs Vanderbilt defensive front

Brent's Analysis: Vanderbilt has been unable to generate much of a pass rush all season. The Commodores blitz only rarely, and play a conservative brand of defense designed not to give up the big play. Consequently they give up a lot of yards rushing, and opposing quarterbacks generally have time to set up and throw.

I watched some of Florida's early games and noticed that the Gator offensive line seemed to be struggling mightily with Urban Meyer's new blocking schemes. By the Georgia game, however, the offense seemed to have been simplified a bit, and the line seemed much more self-assured. Inspired blocking by the offensive line allowed the Gators to run the ball well, in the first half at least, against a good Georgia front.

A telling statistic: Vandy opponents average 4.3 yards per rushing attempt. If I were an offensive coordinator facing Vandy, and I had a good rushing attack, I might not ever throw.

Mark's Analysis: The Florida offensive line fired off of the ball and slapped the Bulldogs around in the first quarter opening holes for DeShawn Wynn and Markus Manson, while providing quarterback Chris Leak ample time to find an open receiver. Florida only gave up one sack to a Georgia defense that has plenty of speed at the end positions. They were inconsistent opening holes for Wynn, Manson, and Kestahn Moore throughout much of the remainder of game, but still had some positives against a very good Georgia defense.

It appears that the Gators have answered a few questions at offensive guard with the play of the Sarasota Riverview boys' Drew Miller and Steve Rissler. Miller was named Southeastern Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week. Rissler also had a solid performance. Fellow guards Jim Tartt and Tav Washington have improved and should continue in the rotation, which will greatly help Tartt in '06.

The play of running backs DeShawn Wynn and Markus Manson, who I felt both played their best overall game of the year last weekend is encouraging. Is the light coming on for the Florida offense?

The Commodores defensive front has allowed LSU to run for 194, Georgia to run for 148, and South Carolina to run for 132 yards. Giving up an average of 158 yards on the ground the past three games cannot be encouraging to the Vandy staff. The Commodores have secured four of their ten total sacks in the past three games. Ten sacks ties the ‘Dores for last in the SEC with Kentucky, and we all remember how time Leak had to throw against the Wildcats in the first half in Lexington.

Brent's Advantage: Florida

Mark's Advantage: Florida

Florida skills positions vs Vanderbilt secondary

Brent's Analysis: Even though Vanderbilt's secondary has played better than expected with its youth and inexperience, it still has some question marks. Freshman Reshard Langford has developed into the hard-hitting strong safety the team has needed. Cornerbacks Andrew Pace (senior) and Josh Allen (freshman) are both speedy but small. Floridian strongside linebacker Kevin Joyce usually covers the tight end.

The worry here is that Vanderbilt may not have enough athletes to withstand all the pressure that Chris Leak and the "spread" offense will put upon it. At a school like Vanderbilt, for defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler the struggle has been putting enough speed on the field to counter such athletically-oriented offenses. Schools like LSU and Alabama have enough athletes on defense to make the Meyer offense look ineffective-- but Vanderbilt probably does not. It can't really afford to gamble and play press coverage, for fear of giving up the big play. Its best hope is to confuse Leak by disguising coverages and picking the right spots for blitzes.

So Leak is not a pocket passer, eh? He looked pretty comfortable against Georgia, and I expect him to complete quick, short passes all day against the Commodores. Shoddy tackling by Vanderbilt sometimes also allows opposing receivers to pad their stats and turn short gains into long ones. Provided the Gators can convert in the red zone, they should score 30 or more points.

Mark's Analysis: Chris Leak played a very good game in the first half (11-15) against Georgia and managed a good game in the second half with a four for five performance.

The Gators suffered another injury to a key starting wide receiver when Dallas Baker sprained his ankle. Fellow receiver Jemalle Cornelius is still returning to form after suffering a high ankle sprain himself.

Wynn and Manson ran for 111 yards in the first half last weekend, but could only manage 49 yards in the second half. Still their combined 160 yards played a huge role in Florida's victory. Furthermore, they took care of the football against a Georgia team that was second in the SEC with a +9 turnover margin.

Vanderbilt ranks dead last in pass defense allowing 240.6 yards per game and a league high 13 touchdowns through the air. There is far too much inexperienced within the Black and Gold. This should be just what the doctor ordered.

Brent's Advantage: Florida

Mark's Advantage: Florida

Special teams

Brent's Analysis: Oh, for the days of Ron Zook! You could pretty much count on at least one special teams blunder per game from Florida back then. Now, it sounds as though those days are past.

Sizing up the two teams, the Gators have the better punter (Eric Wilbur) and can probably outclass the Commodores if the game turns into a field-position war. And though Vandy freshman Bryant Hahnfeldt has been very good on field goals, Florida's Chris Hetland has been even better (8-of-8). Meanwhile Vandy has had a kick of some sort blocked in three of its last four games.

Vanderbilt fans are very excited about freshman returner Earl Bennett, who has shown some dazzling moves fielding kickoffs and punts. However, the Gators have a number of return men (Gavin Dickey, Markus Manson) who can also be gamebreakers.

Mark's Analysis: The Vanderbilt special teams have allowed a punt or field goal attempt to be blocked in each of their last three games. A special teams big play by the Gators is the last thing Bobby Johnson and his staff want in The Swamp on a cool November evening.

The Gators have to stay in their lanes on returns or freshman sensation Earl Bennett will hurt them. He returns both punts and kickoffs for the ‘Dores.

Florida's Dee Webb has blocked two already this season, and Vernell Brown had his best overall game in punt return's last weekend. Eric Wilbur has been outstanding, keeping opponents bottled up opposite field.

Brent's Advantage: Florida

Mark's Advantage: Florida

Final Thoughts:

Brent: Florida clearly has the talent advantage and deserves to be favored at home. The one thing the Gators cannot afford to do, however, is underestimate Jay Cutler. The Commodores do not hit many big plays, but they are very good at converting on third downs, grinding out long drives, and controlling time of possession. Vandy was capable of throwing scares into LSU and Georgia before falling behind in the fourth quarter.

Turnovers can quickly change the nature of any game-- but given that neither team is very turnover-prone, neither team can hope to make a living that way. Vandy's best hope is to outscore Florida in a high-scoring affair. However, if the Florida defense can win the battle in the trenches, collapse the pocket on Cutler, and limit the Vandy running game as expected, it should have little trouble keeping its SEC East hopes alive.

Mark:After dropping their last four games, Vanderbilt received a much needed bye week. The Commodores offensive line has been battered by SEC opponents over the last three games. Facing an improved Florida defense that has only given up three points in the first half of each of their last two games and encouraged with the hope of a conference title is probably not in their best interest. Again, the Commodores have to manufacture a few big plays early and try to keep the Swamp crowd from getting out of hand. They have the ability to do just that if the Gators come out of the locker room with a chip on their shoulder.

The Commodores defense that is listing to the port side after giving up 34.5 points per game against Georgia, LSU, and Carolina. As Brent said in an earlier piece, opposing running backs have run through the Commodore defense like Phil Fulmer through a buffet line. That pretty much sums things up. Nothing to add after that gem.

The Florida offense shouldn't have to fire shots over the bow of Commodore Vanderbilt's ship. The ‘Dores woeful defense might provide them with an opponent to gain additional confidence and stretch this offense out. Brandon Siler said the defense told Leak and Florida offense to give them fourteen points against Georgia. They delivered. If the Florida offense can't deliver more this Saturday night, they don't belong in Atlanta for a championship.

Brent's Pick: Florida

Mark's Pick: Florida

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