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Florida vs. Vanderbilt: Yes, these are still must-wins for the Gators

With their matchup against Georgia in the rearview, it’s important that the Gators keep their focus against inferior opponents.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Florida Gainesville Sun-USA TODAY NETWORK

This has been a tumultuous season for Florida Gators football, which was to be expected in what has undoubtedly been one of the most challenging years in recent history. After a deflating loss in College Station to Texas A&M and a bad breakout of COVID-19 in the subsequent weeks, one that resulted in the postponement of two games and over 30 players and staff testing positive for the virus, the season was off to an incredibly shaky start. But the talent and composure of Dan Mullen’s team held firm, and they’ve been even better since returning to play.

In three games following the COVID break, Florida has beaten opponents by a combined score of 148-80, with all three wins — including the biggest win of Mullen’s tenure, a 44-28 triumph in Jacksonville — coming by more than two touchdowns. The offense has gone over 500 yards and 40 points in each game, with Kyle Trask vaulting himself to the pinnacle of the Heisman conversation. Even the defense has played marginally better than their early season incompetence, with a few solid performances against Missouri and Georgia with an uptick of big plays — turnovers, tackles for loss — helping turn the tide for Todd Grantham’s unit.

Things are far from perfect, but as it stands, Florida is in firm command of the SEC East and regarded as a legitimate threat to break into the College Football Playoff. After vanquishing their Georgian demons for the first time since 2016, the path to another SEC Championship Game is clear as day, with a likely matchup with juggernaut Alabama awaiting on December 19.

But there are four games scheduled between then and now. The division is not clinched. Florida is still on the outside of the playoff picture. These next four weeks will be pivotal in ensuring this team’s lofty goals can be met.

And yet, with that being said, the run of games is far from a challenge on paper. This Saturday’s matchup brings Florida to Nashville to face a hapless Vanderbilt program. While the Commodores are used to being basement dwellers in the SEC, this season has been exceptionally poor: They are the only winless team in the league, losing all six of their contests thus far, and have taken 41-7 defeats to LSU and South Carolina, who themselves have had horrible campaigns — LSU’s so bad that there is semi-serious banter about how much of the bloom is off Cajun rose Ed Orgeron after a national championship and a deep antipathy for defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, South Carolina’s so disappointing that Will Muschamp is once again looking for work.

Vandy’s offense ranks within the bottom five in the SEC in every significant category, including dead last in scoring, and is paired with a defense also among the bottom five in yardage and scoring. It is truly a worst-case scenario for head coach Derek Mason, who could be looking for a job after his six-year stint with Vandy. It is likely that Florida will walk into Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday and win by enough to pull their starters at halftime; a spread yawning beyond four touchdowns is proof of that.

And outside of the pit of misery that is Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee, and LSU remain on the docket. While no team in that trio has been as poor as the Commodores, these sides haven’t exactly played well either.

LSU has lost three times, with original starting quarterback Myles Brennan — whose play was a huge dropoff removed from that of Joe Burrow, though anyone but 2020 Kyle Trask’s play apparently would’ve been — out for the rest of the year, and an Auburn outfit with its own share of struggles just the latest to utterly shred LSU’s defense. Tennessee also fits solidly in the trash heap of the SEC, losing four straight to snap its much-celebrated nation-leading consecutive wins streak in pathetic fashion and boasting an offense that ranks bottom three in the SEC for yards and points per game. Kentucky is more average than bad, but an offense that has really struggled to move the ball much of the year, ranking dead last among SEC teams in yards per game, has made the Wildcats look worse on the field than on paper, and the tragic death of offensive line coach John Schlarman leaving everyone in Lexington with heavy hearts.

There are no marquee matchups left on the schedule for Florida.

But there’s a reason they still play the games.

One of the things that makes college sports so unique and engaging is the unpredictability. Despite the gulf of talent between some programs, there’s always the off chance of an upset. While it’s unlikely that a floundering Vanderbilt will derail Florida’s championship aspirations, it’s also not impossible. And even though this week isn’t one with Florida on upset alert, it’s important not to look past the upcoming slate of opponents. This is the SEC, after all, and there are players at all of these schools that can make big plays and present a challenge for Florida, some of whom might be Floridians looking to prove themselves against a home-state power. If the Gators don’t show up in one of these games and seriously drop the ball, the season could seriously sour.

And Florida’s margin of error is very small, thanks to its loss to Texas A&M. While a loss wouldn’t necessarily jeopardize their chance at winning the SEC East — Florida is now well ahead of every East challenger but Georgia, and would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker in a two-team tie with the Dawgs — a second defeat almost surely sinks any chance at a national title.

With the enormous crop of viable contenders on the fringes of the playoff even outside the spots theoretically set to go to Power Five conference champions — this year, that includes BYU, Cincinnati, whichever of Clemson and Notre Dame does not win the ACC, and a hypothetical undefeated Pac-12 champion — a second loss would put a playoff position in serious jeopardy even with a victory over Alabama in the conference title game. Historical precedent would not favor a two-loss Florida team: No two-loss team has ever cracked the final four, with Penn State, which won the Big Ten in 2016, left out for one-loss Ohio State.

If the Gators stumble in one of these last four games, they open up the very real possibility of being passed over when the playoff is sorted out, potentially even to a non-conference champion Texas A&M.

So while these next four games aren’t the biggest challenge and won’t conjure up many headlines, they are still must-wins. And if Florida wins them and keeps this #Trask4Heisman hype going, this veritably sleepy stretch of games might be worth waking up for after all.