The Difference, Florida vs. Vanderbilt: Gators' floor is 8-4, but is a national title their ceiling now?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

At 6-0 and No. 2 in the BCS rankings, is it time to start considering Florida a legitimate national title contender?

1. The floor for Florida is now 8-4. The ceiling is whatever the Gators want it to be. And it's going to frustrate some fans if they don't quite touch it.

I don't think it's likely that Florida will go from 6-0 to 8-4 by the end of the 2012 season: That would require losses to South Carolina and Florida State, both very conceivable outcomes, a loss to Georgia in Jacksonville that seems a little less likely, and a devastating loss to Missouri in Gainesville that seems unfathomable. (Florida's beating Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State, don't worry.)

Not only would that collapse be a ridiculous one, it would render Florida's 2012 season a disappointment despite a two-win improvement on 2011's muddled mess. That's the power of expectations, and of the skies clearing for the Gators to soar again: When Florida fans can see a path to SEC success and national championship contention, ending up in the Outback Bowl just won't do.

Florida's got the defense of a national championship team, it seems, though the Gators have yet to see three of the four best offenses they'll face, and Brent Pease's offense does enough to win week after week. Add the special teams breakthroughs against Vanderbilt (and, remember, this was sort of a subpar game for both Caleb Sturgis and Kyle Christy), and the Gators seem to be capable of beating teams every which way but with the pass.

That's a bizarro world for Gators fans raised on Steve Spurrier's explosive offenses to be living in, but it is reminiscent of 2006 in one way: These Gators beat the other team on the field with them, reliably if not by ridiculous margins. There probably isn't a way to lose and get back into the national title picture, as there was when Florida lost to Auburn in '06, but if the Gators don't lose, that won't be a problem.

The actual problem is that fans now know that this team can win, and is very much ahead of schedule. Losing big won't do, and sliding in the second half won't do, but I wonder if three close losses to Carolina, UGA, and FSU would make fans feel like Florida overachieved or underachieved. I suspect it's the latter, and that's why I hope Florida ends up playing for a national title or something: These Gators have overachieved to get where they are, and deserve to be remembered as overachievers when all is said and done.

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2. South Carolina losing to LSU did a lot ... for Georgia. Florida's chances of beating South Carolina likely didn't improve or diminish with the Gamecocks' 23-21 loss to LSU in Death Valley last weekend; Florida's chances of winning the East may have actually gotten worse.

Georgia's chances, and Georgia's path, got a lot easier.

Florida can clinch the division with wins in the next two weeks, but it could have essentially clinched against South Carolina had the Gamecocks won last Saturday; with a win over a previously undefeated South Carolina, the Gators could have set up a scenario in which even a loss to Georgia would only have produced a three-team tie in the East, and the tiebreakers set up for breaking a three-team tie in the division that would seem to favor Florida. (As much as they favor anyone, anyway.)

But South Carolina losing means that Florida could beat South Carolina this week to give the Gamecocks two SEC losses and that a Georgia win in Jacksonville would give the Bulldogs the lead in the East via head-to-head tiebreaker over a Florida team with one SEC loss.

The moral of that story is that it must be nice to play Georgia's LSU-less, Alabama-free schedule. It. Must. Be. Nice.

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3. Jeff Driskel's passing isn't the main issue with Florida's passing game. Driskel tends to do a fine job throwing the ball, though he's still got a tendency to lock onto receivers and fail to make the throw at the exact perfect second. But Driskel can't throw the sorts of deep balls that would really help open up the offense because his receivers can't be trusted to run deep routes; Andre Debose was that guy last year, but he's apparently out of the rotation at receiver forever this year, and there's just no one else with comparable straight-line speed to run go routes that let Driskel rear back and fire away. That trickles down to the intermediate passing game, which gets gummed up by safeties staying shallow, and the running game, which sees more looks with eight men in the box than it should.

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4. Driskel is doing a better job than Tim Tebow as a zone option quarterback. It's a little early to say that Driskel's speed advantages and per-carry production edge (Driskel's averaging 5.7 yards per carry this year; Tebow averaged 4.3 in his career and no higher than the 5.3 he put up as a part-timer in 2006) make him a better runner than Tebow, but Driskel already appears to be much more proficient at option reads.

Tebow struggled to make reads even into his senior season, often failing to make quick decisions and letting the defense have a precious half-second of reaction time or incorrectly keeping the ball and gaining less yardage than was available. Driskel, especially against Vanderbilt, makes decisions swiftly and smoothly: He read both a defensive end and a blitzing linebacker on his 37-yard run, and froze a blitzing corner with the fake; on the 70-yard game-sealer, the correct read of a crashing lineman is perfect, and the fake is so good that it gets two linebackers cheating toward the middle of the field and leaves Hunter Joyer looking for someone to block. (He eventually found the cornerback.) In both cases, Driskel also had the speed to get to paydirt untouched, and, especially on the second one, his speed completely ruins good angles Vandy defenders could have taken.

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5. Latroy Pittman is going to be a fantastic blocker. On that 37-yard touchdown, Pittman is left isolated by a blitzing corner, and, while Driskel gets around end and turns on the jets, he throws himself at two defenders, eliminating any chance of them stopping the play. He's a true freshman with instincts and fearlessness like that.

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6. Florida is very, very "multiple" on offense. I won't steal from Thomas Goldkamp's work at 247Sports, but he's been keeping track of formations used all year by the Gators, and they number in the double digits. Florida can do a lot of things with them, too, given Driskel's utility as a runner and a passer, and Mike Gillislee's two catches on Saturday showed that he can be deployed in the flats.

The key, though, is that Florida's five SEC wins have all come with different offensive frameworks: Against Texas A&M, it was running outside; against Tennessee, it was using Trey Burton and wildcat principles; against Kentucky, Florida threw the ball a bit; against LSU, Florida overloaded the line and hammered away; against Vanderbilt, Driskel executed read option offense superbly. If you think you know exactly how Florida's going to attack South Carolina on Saturday, you're probably Brent Pease or a blood relation.

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7. Burton needs to be a reliable receiver. The tendency to write off Trey Burton as a flash in the pan (or multiple flashes in multiple pans) has everything to do with his vacillation between being a big-play threat (Tennessee in 2012, Georgia in 2010) and an unreliable option who kills Florida (Vandy in 2012, Florida State in 2011). Flashing hands of stone against the 'Dores after looking like a solid intermediate hybrid back/receiver earlier in the year only makes it harder to justify Burton being on the field in passing situations, and he's just not nearly as valuable as Joyer as a blocker nor as big as other tight ends, so his flexibility only goes so far.

Catch the ball, Trey.

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8. Vanderbilt's fourth-quarter success was based on tempo. The first play of the Vandy touchdown drive in the fourth quarter has a surprise hurry-up to the line that caught Florida off guard. Here's what it looked like at that snap, via the ESPN broadcast.

Vandy_q4_snap_medium

You can see that Neiron Ball and Jon Bostic aren't just out of position; they're still moving. Ball fails to hold the edge on the play, and Bostic gets caught on the wrong side of the run, so Wesley Tate goes for 20 yards, only getting tripped up by a great Josh Evans tackle.

There's an uncalled hold on that play, but Florida definitely deserved to get gashed by it. Florida would get burned three more times by tempo on the drive, with players not being set in time for the snap — but, amusingly, De'Ante Saunders' negated interception came on a play that he wasn't set for.

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9. Jonathan Bullard and D.J. Humphries both played well. Freshmen being thrust into action by injury should be scary, but Bullard has been Florida's best freshman player since about the Tennessee game, and Humphries doesn't look or play like a freshman at all. Their successes, based not on recruiting promises but on earned playing time, bode well for Florida's chances of recruiting and playing elite freshmen in the future: Will Muschamp can just tell guys to look at what Bullard and Humphries, among others, have done.

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10. Florida really missed Jonotthan Harrison. If there was any one thing that I thought Florida struggled with against Vanderbilt, it was getting a push up the middle. That's not Jon Halapio's forte; he pulls and blocks well, which was why he was named SEC Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week. But it's Harrison's, as he uses his considerable size for a center (he's listed at 6'4", 299 pounds) to make holes. With him out against Vandy, those holes weren't there. It'd be nice to have him back to do some hole-opening against South Carolina.

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11. Close games are here to stay. Florida's last lead of more than 14 points came against Kentucky, in a shutout. Florida's led by 14 or more points for 55:12 of game clock in 2012, and 38:24 of that was against the moribund Wildcats. These Gators just don't jump on teams, or pull away. That's frustrating, even if the final outcomes aren't.

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12. Mike Gillislee doesn't lose yardage. Gillislee ran 34 times against LSU without losing yardage, and added 17 more carries against Vandy for positive yards or no gain. None of his 13 carries against Kentucky were for losses, either, and his last rush for a loss came in the first half against Tennessee, on his last carry of the first half and eighth of the day; Gillislee's last 74 carries have been for positive yardage or no gain. Only five of Gillislee's 120 carries in 2012 have been for losses; of the five, three have been in goal line situations, and two came on the same set of downs in the fourth quarter against Bowling Green while up 27-14.

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13. Florida could be No. 1 in the BCS rankings by the end of October. If four computers think Florida's No. 2 right now, without wins over teams that should be in the top 10 if/when Florida beats them, how do you think they're going to rank the Gators if/when Florida is 8-0 and has wins over LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas A&M? Human pollsters are going to have to give the Gators a second look, too: While Oregon plays at Arizona State this Thursday, its first game outside the Pacific Northwest in 2012, and Mississippi State should be Alabama's first non-Michigan test in two weeks, neither of those wins would likely compare favorably to Florida's fourth-best win.

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14. Florida's road advantage is returning. There were enough Gators in attendance at Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt to hear "It's great! To be! A Flor-i-da Ga-tor!" chants on television, and enough at Vandy to make the "We Are The Boys" before the fourth quarter something the announcers talked about upon the return to action. When the Gator Nation travels, the Gators on the field notice. It matters to them, and to recruits, that the Gator Nation is truly everywhere.

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The Difference is borrowed from Rob Mahoney's feature of the same name at The Two-Man Game, his thoughtful Dallas Mavericks, which makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about the game just played. Here at Alligator Army, it will make that number of points about the weekend in Gator Nation and in college football.

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