GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida and Vanderbilt first played in 1945, a 7-0 win for the Commodores at Florida Field. It remains the only time in the history of the series that the Gators lost at home to Vanderbilt.
Florida wants to keep that streak intact on Saturday when the teams meet for the 45th time. On the flip side, the Gators want to say goodbye to another streak: a four-game losing skid that started the last time they played at home.
The Gators stepped onto Florida Field on Oct. 1 ranked No. 12 in the country for their game against No. 2-ranked Alabama. Not much has gone right since.
The Gators not only lost that night to the Crimson Tide, 38-10, they lost starting quarterback John Brantley late in the second quarter. Brantley missed the second half and the next two games – road losses at No. 1-ranked LSU and No. 24 Auburn.
A week ago in Jacksonville, Brantley returned and had the Gators in contention for a victory over No. 22 Georgia, but the Bulldogs prevailed 24-20 to hand Florida its first four-game losing streak in 23 years.
The Gators finally return home for Homecoming on Saturday. They have won 20 in a row over the Commodores, but this year’s Vanderbilt team under first-year coach James Franklin is better than most of the Commodore teams the Gators have easily disposed of in the past.
“James Franklin has done a great job with his football team,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “They’re well-coached, play hard, multiple on offense, press you on defense, really attack you there in special teams. They pose a lot of issues.’’
To get you ready for Saturday’s game here are 10 things to keep an eye on:
If you read this preview on a weekly basis, you may have noticed that Brantley is usually one of the keys for the Gators. That goes along with being the starting quarterback, but considering the way the season has played out, Brantley is clearly the most important piece of the puzzle for this year’s Florida team.
He passed for 226 yards in the first half of last week’s loss to Georgia and appeared on his way to a career-best day. However, his mobility was limited in the second half due to the ankle injury he suffered against Alabama and he was just 2 of 14 for 19 yards in the second half.
To give him more time to throw, Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis used Brantley almost exclusively in the shotgun. With another week for his ankle to heal, expect Brantley to be able to work under center more on Saturday and for his mobility in the pocket to improve. His ability to plant on his right foot on pass attempts should also be better.
FLORIDA’S OFFENSIVE LINE
No unit faced more ridicule in the wake of last week’s loss to Georgia than the Gators’ offensive line. Florida allowed six sacks as Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones turned into a one-man sack machine, registering four sacks on his own and earning national player of the week honors.
Muschamp pointed out that not all the sacks were a result of the offensive line, but there is no doubt this group can play better. They have a challenge in Commodores defensive end Tim Fugger and defensive tackle Rob Lohr. Fugger ranks third in the SEC with 11 tackles for loss and Lohr is fourth with 10.5.
Gators right tackle Chaz Green is listed as probable. Green missed the Georgia game after suffering an ankle injury in practice. In the Gators’ four wins, they allowed two sacks. In their four losses, they have allowed 15.
The Commodores rank second in the SEC with 15 interceptions, led by cornerback Casey Howard’s five and three by corner Trey Wilson.
With turnovers playing such a crucial role for the Gators during their losing streak, Brantley must be careful with the football against a secondary that has shown the ability to swing momentum Vanderbilt’s way. The Commodores returned interceptions for touchdowns in three consecutive games earlier this season for the first time in school history.
The Gators failed to develop a consistent rushing game in the loss to Georgia, finishing with minus-19 yards on the ground primarily because of the six sacks against Brantley.
With senior running back Chris Rainey (ankle) listed as questionable, Jeff Demps, Mike Gillislee, Trey Burton and others might see their number called more than usual. Gillislee missed last week’s game with an ankle injury but is considered probable.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s Zac Stacy is fourth in the conference with 707 yards and he has scored six touchdowns to provide the Commodores with a consistent threat in the backfield. Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who has taken over as the starter the last two games, is also a threat to run.
This is a game the Gators need to win if they want to avoid another week of negative headlines and chirping from fans. Losing four consecutive games to ranked opponents is one thing; losing to Vanderbilt for the first time since 1988 would be something entirely different.
It will be interesting to see how the Gators come out and execute early in the game. They showed a lot of fire early in the Georgia game, but as the game progressed and the offense began to struggle in the second half, Georgia appeared to play with more energy down the stretch.
Here is something that seems safe to guarantee: Florida will have fewer penalties against Vanderbilt than it did a week ago against Georgia.
The Gators were penalized 14 times for 106 yards, including several false starts on the offensive line and a couple of key pass interference penalties in the second half.
The Gators are currently the most penalized team in the country and they will need to clean up some of the miscues to prevent from beating themselves. It’s an area the coaches and players have spent extra time looking at recently and they expect a better performance against Vandy.
This has been a sore spot for the Gators of late. In their four losses, Florida has forced one turnover – a Marcus Roberson interception against Georgia – and committed nine.
The Gators are last in the SEC at minus-8 in turnover margin and turnovers proved costly against the Bulldogs. Both of Georgia’s touchdowns last week came off Florida fumbles deep in its own territory.
Vanderbilt has forced 22 turnovers and committed 20, ranking fifth in the league at plus-2. The turnover battle almost always plays an important role, but that fact has been exacerbated recently for Florida.
The Gators have completed 110 passes through eight games, but only 44 (40 percent) are to the wide receivers. Senior Deonte Thompson leads the group with 13 catches for 165 yards, but Thompson has no touchdown receptions. Neither does wideout Frankie Hammond Jr., whose 12 catches for 141 yards are second to Thompson among the wideouts.
Andre Debose has the unit’s only two touchdown receptions, both 65-yard scores – one to open the game against Alabama and one in the second half at LSU with the Tigers in control.
If this group can start helping out Brantley by making more plays, it could also help the offense establish a better running game.
THE SWAMP CROWD
It has been 32 years since a Florida team ran out of the tunnel at The Swamp with a losing streak this long. If ever the Gators needed a supportive home crowd, Saturday is that time.
Vanderbilt is no pushover, proving that in close losses to Georgia and a week ago (31-28) against Arkansas. If Saturday’s game ends up close at the end, the home fans could make a difference.
The Gators finished last week’s game without three regulars on defense: cornerback Cody Riggs and linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Lerentee McCray.
Kicker Caleb Sturgis was also absent due to a lingering leg strain that he suffered at Auburn. While back-up kicker Brad Phillips filled in capably, the Gators need all the healthy bodies they can get.
Muschamp sounded optimistic that most of the injured players would return Saturday, but we won’t know for sure until game time.
Vanderbilt at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, 12:21 p.m. (Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville)
Records: Vanderbilt 4-4 (1-4 SEC); Florida 4-4 (2-4 SEC)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (click here for affiliates); Sirius 220/XM 199
Bottom line: The Gators enter with a four-game losing streak and need a win. They have won 20 consecutive games over the Commodores and No. 21 couldn’t come at a better time. Florida hasn’t lost five consecutive games since the infamous 0-10-1 season of 1979.