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Florida vs. Vanderbilt preview: Gators want to prolong Commodore misery

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Vandy had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day last week. Can the Gators make it two in a row?

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators are coming off a stirring comeback win at Kentucky. The Vanderbilt Commodores are coming off a shellacking at the hands of Alabama. Can Florida make it two weeks in a row of pure misery for the Commodores?

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Kentucky rush defense

Florida seems to have found something on the ground it can rely on: Malik Davis. The freshman carried 21 times for 93 yards against a previously stingy Kentucky defense, and shouldered the load for Florida’s offense in the fourth quarter, plunging into the line time and again. Davis is likely to get the lion’s share of the carries against Vanderbilt, with Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson also certain to get some burn, and the potent Kadarius Toney not figuring into the Gators’ running game would be a surprise.

Also, Vanderbilt just gave up an absurd, not-a-misprint-I-swear 496 yards to Alabama on the ground, with the Crimson Tide picking up more than 7.5 yards per carry. This came one week after Vandy yielded 5.7 yards per carry and 201 rushing yards to Kansas State. Quite clearly, Florida appears to have a weakness it can exploit on the ground.

Significant edge: Florida

Florida passing game vs. Kentucky pass defense

Running the ball, however, might be Florida’s bread and butter for better and worse against the Commodores.

Feleipe Franks was benched midway through the second half in Lexington after a disappointing inability to make reads helped scuttle Florida’s passing game, and he gave way to redshirt junior Luke Del Rio — who was, well, what we’ve come to know he is: A competent game manager with physical limits he does not always consider. Del Rio made a few smart throws over the course of the Gators’ comeback, most notably a pass across his body to convert a key fourth down and a swift throw to Freddie Swain for the game-winning touchdown, but his only deep shot was a woefully poor throw down the left hash that was intercepted.

Del Rio will start against Vanderbilt, and is likely to get at least as long a leash as Franks has had — Franks has played into the second half twice this year before being replaced by backups — and could find openings in a Commodores secondary that Alabama riddled with little problem, especially if Florida’s talented receiving options can get open. But Vandy has also allowed just 4.4 yards per attempt this season, and is among the nation’s best defenses against the pass, though its successes have come against Middle Tennessee State, Alabama A&M, and Kansas State, none of which are more than mediocre passing attacks.

The likelihood of rain in Gainesville is high this Saturday, probably reducing the efficacy of deep passes — and that’s something that plays into Del Rio’s hands, as an accurate passer in the short-to-medium range who struggles to throw deep accurately.

Edge: Vanderbilt

When Vanderbilt has the ball

Vanderbilt running game vs. Florida rush defense

Vanderbilt senior Ralph Webb went to Gainesville High, and has been a perpetual thorn in Florida’s side since being passed up in Florida’s 2014 recruiting class, gashing the Gators for at least 83 yards in each of his three meetings with his hometown team. Coming off arguably the worst game of his career — a six-carry, 20-yard performance against Alabama — Webb will undoubtedly be raring to go in what will be his final appearance in the heart of Gator Nation.

The problem is that Vandy isn’t very good at running the ball, despite having an excellent running back. The Commodores are just under three yards per carry on the season, and have failed to hit that mark in all three games against FBS opponents, racking up just under five yards per carry against Alabama A&M and falling short of 75 yards per contest in their other three games.

That could be a boon for Florida’s leaky rush defense, which gave up under four yards per carry to Kentucky last Saturday, its best mark of the season. And while Webb is a very good player, Florida has seen better backs — Tennessee’s John Kelly, and Michigan’s revolving door of bruisers — behind far better lines this season.

Edge: Even

Vanderbilt passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Could Vanderbilt really throw on the vaunted Florida secondary? It’s not as crazy as it sounds at first, I think.

Kyle Shurmur, son of long-time NFL coach Pat, has been a pleasant surprise for the Commodores in 2017 after muddling through the first two years of his career. He’s thrown eight touchdown passes to just one pick, and is completing 63 percent of his throws for 8.6 yards per attempt, and fueled a surprisingly good passing attack. Vandy has as many pass plays of 30 or more yards — seven — this season as Ohio State and Washington, and just one fewer than throw-happy Washington State and two fewer than Lamar Jackson-helmed Louisville. Shurmur’s crested 200 yards three times, too, and thrown for three TDs with no picks twice.

He also went 4-for-15 for 18 yards and a pick against Alabama.

Florida, though young and green and flammable in its secondary, has athletes far closer to those Alabama deploys than the ones Shurmur was able to defeat over his first three games. And Florida has a pass rush arguably better than the Alabama one that helped menace Vandy a week ago, allowing a perfect zero percent Success Rate on passing downs.

Shurmur being able to throw on Florida would make a big difference for Vandy on this Saturday. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Slight edge: Florida

Special teams

Another week, another easy write-up on special teams: Florida is great at kicking the ball, and not so great at fielding kicked balls and returning them, while Florida Opponent _______ is not quite as good at the kicking and better at the returning.

Vandy’s Tommy Openshaw is 0-for-2 on field goals this fall. Vandy’s Sam Loy is just under 40 yards per punt on the season, and is tied for No. 12 nationally in punts per game. Eddy Piñeiro and Johnny Townsend are better.

But while Vandy has clicked off a 29-yard punt return, it’s also bad at kick returns, meaning Florida should have a demonstrable special teams edge in this game.

Edge: Florida

Other factors

Vandy wants to rebound from its bruising loss to Alabama, but may be too contused to do much of anything. Florida would probably like to show out for its home crowd in what should be a steamy, rainy day in The Swamp, especially after yet another week of the wrong kind of headlines about Gators who aren’t even part of the current locker room. And while Vandy doesn’t have the psychic weight of a forever-long losing streak to bear like Kentucky did, the Commodores do have a penchant for not quite doing enough against the Gators.

Edge: Florida