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Florida vs. Vanderbilt, Sunday Afternoon Post: Good show, Gators

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Another blowout of a bad team makes clear where these Gators stand — and makes the lack of action for a key backup more puzzling.

Vanderbilt v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

I didn’t write up a Sunday look-back post for the Florida Gators falling to Georgia in Jacksonville last week, mostly a) because I felt like I would’ve been saying the same things as I’ve said after every loss of the Dan Mullen era and b) because it would’ve been depressing.

I considered not writing one up for this Saturday’s lopsided win over Vanderbilt for the former reason, too — but, hey, I figured I’d write something.

Here are our Sunday afternoon takeaways from this game, which come without having given it or its highlights a second viewing.

Again: Florida’s not where it was

I have harped on a variation of this all season: Florida appears to have made a shift from “team that struggles to win games it should” to “team that struggles but wins games it should.”

Florida played four teams that it has utterly outclassed this year: UT-Martin, Tennessee, Towson, and Vanderbilt. (Rough year for teams from Tennessee against Florida!) Those games have gone to the Gators by a composite score of 173-3.

Good gracious.

Florida has played three teams that were probably between one and two rungs down from it this year: Miami, Kentucky, and South Carolina. It’s won all of those games so far, but in closer fashion, with the first two being one-possession affairs and the latter only getting to double digits late in the game and after a Florida comeback. (For what it’s worth, I think Missouri and Florida State probably slot into this tier.)

Finally, Florida has also played three teams at the top-15 level or better, and has gone 1-2 in those games, with logical results: The Gators won the home game, lost the neutral-site game by a touchdown, and lost the road game by two scores.

Overall, Florida’s record looks a lot like those of the three teams it would consider its peers — it’s just that Florida lost to two of those three teams, and is probably going to miss both a trip to Atlanta and a chance to play in the College Football Playoff as a result.

I get why some fans would be unhappy about that, especially given how well Florida had positioned itself for a miracle SEC/CFP run under a backup quarterback prior to the LSU game. But what Florida has done with that backup quarterback — who’s played well enough that most fans have let him just be the quarterback — and with a roster that has been racked by injuries is quite clearly a step up from what Florida was doing for most of this decade, and I really wish Florida fans would do more to appreciate and enjoy this tier of standard of living in college football, because the climb to the next tier — the ultimate tier, I think — is one of the hardest tasks any program can tackle.

Whether it’s fully appreciated or not, though, Florida is here.

Kudos to a great crowd

I was not bullish about Florida’s chances of filling up The Swamp for this game, a nooner against a clearly-outclassed foe with little marquee value that came after a rather disappointing loss. But fans did just that, turning out in such numbers that the announced attendance of 86,000+ seems only a bit inflated rather than totally ridiculous.

And these were fans who stayed and cheered for the Gators through almost all of the game, making sure to belt out “I Won’t Back Down.” It’s easier to both get out of bed for and go to a nooner in November when the temperature finally gets down to the lower 70s in Florida, sure, but there was no real football-related reason for fans to stay for the duration of this game after Florida opened up its 28-0 lead in the third — and they did, more or less.

Florida has had and is going to have the same problems as any program when it comes to declining attendance (and especially declining and late-arriving student attendance) for college football as we get deeper into a century with plenty of existential challenges for live events and football as a sport. But Florida drawing an 80-90% capacity crowd for a noon game against a terrible Vanderbilt team suggests that Florida’s athletic department is also facing up to those challenges in meaningful ways, that Florida fans are more faithful attendees at this point in time than many gave them credit for, or both.

Mullen is missing opportunities with Emory Jones

Last year, Dan Mullen used Emory Jones playing in specialized packages as a (thinly-veiled) line of attack on Kirby Smart’s deployment of Justin Fields as a Georgia freshman. Whether that had anything to do with Fields leaving Georgia for Ohio State is for you to debate — that evidence is flimsy as hell, especially compared to the other more logical and documented reasons for Fields leaving Athens, in my opinion — but Mullen had a point: Fields was doing virtually nothing for the Dawgs, while Jones saw the field and got the ball with chances to make plays for the Gators.

In 2018, Fields went 27-for-39 for 328 yards and four touchdowns and had 42 carries for 266 yards and four touchdowns for Georgia.

In 2019, Jones is 19-for-31 for 172 yards and two touchdowns and has 25 carries for 152 yards and four touchdowns for Florida.

Jones hasn’t thrown more than eight passes in any game, and has just six since he was rendered Florida’s lone healthy scholarship quarterback very briefly against Auburn; Jones also played pretty extensively against LSU, getting nine carries and throwing a touchdown pass, but had just one carry each against South Carolina and Georgia, and didn’t throw a pass in either of those games.

And with Florida putting away Vandy early in the third quarter of this game, the final 20 or so minutes of garbage time on Saturday seemed like a perfect time for Jones to play more. Instead, after Florida took a 35-0 lead, Kyle Trask played on three of the last four offensive drives, and though Jones punched in all of the final three Florida touchdowns on the ground, he wasn’t asked to throw a pass until that very last drive — which featured completions of 10 and 37 yards, mind you.

I don’t think Mullen has done a good job of getting Jones reps in live game action this year, and while I think he had a pretty good excuse for some of his favoring of Trask over Jones — namely, that Trask also needed reps, as an inexperienced collegiate quarterback — I also think that the validity of that excuse is on the wane. The value of each rep for Trask in a blowout is marginal and diminishing; the value of getting Jones reps and getting him off the bench is significant, especially if Florida wants to preserve depth at QB going forward.

Whether we see a lot more of Jones over Florida’s final two games is anyone’s guess. Those games could be close, or they could be blowouts; Jones could be needed at crucial junctures, or could just be the garbage-time QB.

But whether we should see more of Jones is a question with an obvious answer. And Mullen failing to answer it correctly is puzzling at best.

Other notes

  • Florida’s first drive and third-to-last drive were baffling ones. The Gators opened run-sack on the first drive, getting into third and 12, and only got back to fourth and one via a nice pass to Lamical Perine. They then burned a pretty good fourth-down play design — a sort of play-action draw with a streak to Perine out of the backfield — on their side of the field ... against Vanderbilt ... on the first drive of the game. This didn’t really hurt, because Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt, but it was still a head-scratcher. Likewise with the latter drive: Up 42-0 with the third quarter just 17 seconds from completion, Florida came out throwing (!?) with Trask (!?!?) and promptly completed one pass, switched ends for the quarter break, and went 0-for-3 on the next three passes for an extended four-and-out. As allocation of snaps goes, that was not ideal.
  • As for allocation of targets: Florida had nine different players record carries, and 11 different players recorded catches. Obviously, there is some overlap there, but this is as diverse an offense as Florida has perhaps ever had, and there’s likely some recruiting value in compiling those stats and advertising them. (Of course, Florida’s efficient spreading of this sort of wealth makes the lack of burn for Jones that much more perplexing.)
  • There isn’t much to say about Florida’s defense overwhelming an iffy Vandy line that protected two bad QBs in this game, I think, apart from the obvious praise for Mohamoud Diabate bee-lining to those QBs and recording three sacks and a forced fumble. Diabate doesn’t really look like an SEC linebacker just yet, but he’s quick and fast, and if he can maintain those traits while bulking up, he’ll be in line for more awards than the SEC Freshman of the Week honor he’s a shoo-in for this week.
  • Florida’s five running backs in this game: 13 carries, 34 yards. Kadarius Toney in this game: Two carries, 39 yards. Good for Toney, who gained the bulk of his yards on a multi-juke jaunt that could have been one of the greatest Florida touchdowns ever had he made one or two more tacklers miss, but also yikes.
  • Related to the above: I don’t think Florida’s offensive line was all that different without transferring former starter Chris Bleich. Slightly better, maybe? The holes still weren’t really there in the running game, and Trask still got pressured in many of the same ways. It’s obvious that the most significant progress for the players who comprise this line is coming this offseason, if at all.
  • Finally: It’s gotta be about that time for Derek Mason at Vanderbilt, right? Understandably, Vandy has had a bad season with all sorts of injuries at QB — but it was down to the backup when it upset Missouri, and it had its starter when it fell to UNLV a week prior. Ke’Shawn Vaughn appears to be the majority of the Commodores’ offense, and as he was taken entirely out of the game on Saturday, Vandy had no hope whatsoever of moving the ball against anything but soft coverage. And despite Mason’s rep as a defensive coordinator from his Stanford days, the Commodores have held just three foes under 30 points this year. Vandy can’t go bowling, and needs to win both of its final two — against East Tennessee State and Tennessee — to avoid matching the 3-9 record it posted in Mason’s first year, or worse. And don’t count on that happening.