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October 11, 2012

Game Week: Vanderbilt Breakdown


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    One week after upsetting then #4 LSU and one week before facing off against #3 South Carolina, Florida takes on Vanderbilt in what is looked at as the classic 'trap' game. Inside the Gators has the very latest on the match up in this Game Week Breakdown. Guerry Smith breaks down VU with his answers to five burning questions as well previewing five Commodores players Gator fans should keep an eye on this weekend.

    BURNING QUESTIONS: Guerry Smith provides answers to these five burning questions
    1) Does Vanderbilt have a realistic chance to pull an upset?

    Not really. The Commodores are too weak offensively to challenge Florida's terrific defense. Second-year coach James Franklin has Vandy playing at a different level than any coach in memory, but the 16-13 upset of Missouri last week comes with a couple of qualifiers. First, Missouri lost its starting quarterback to a knee injury in the first quarter, and his replacement, Corbin Berkstresser, was a dreadful 9-of-30. Second, Vanderbilt did not get its initial first down until almost nine minutes into the second quarter. That's a losing formula against Florida, which is dominant in the second half and has yet to allow a point in the fourth quarter. Before beating Missouri, Vanderbilt wore down in the fourth quarter of losses to South Carolina and Northwestern and got clobbered 48-3 by Georgia. That's not good enough.

    2) Why has Vanderbilt taken a step back in year No. 2 after making a rare bowl appearance in 2011?

    Actually, that's a myth. The Commodores likely will turn out to be better this year despite their slow start. They went bowling last year by beating bad teams -FBS victims Ole Miss, Connecticut, Kentucky, Army and Wake Forest were a combined 21-40. Depending on how things break the rest of the way, they could be favored in their final six games against Auburn (home), Massachusetts (home), Kentucky (away), Ole Miss (away), Tennessee (home) and Wake Forest (away). Don't laugh. Tennessee has a brutal schedule and easily could be 4-6 by the time it travels to Nashville. The Commodores led South Carolina 13-10 in the fourth quarter before losing 17-13 in their opener. They led Northwestern for three quarters before getting outscored 17-3 in the fourth, losing 23-13. Their 48-3 loss to Georgia was their most lopsided defeat since 2003, but that was an anomaly. They have not given up more than 34 points to anyone else in Franklin's 18-game tenure.

    3) What are the major problems on offense?

    As always, Vanderbilt does not have enough SEC caliber players to do damage consistently. The Commodores have failed to score 20 points in their four games against FBS competition, due in large part to a shaky offensive line. Running back Zac Stacy, who gained 1,193 yards a year ago, has done next to nothing aside from a 174-yard, eight-carry performance against lowly Presbyterian. In the other four games, he has 67 carries for 239 yards (3.6 average), a sharp contrast to his 5.9 average in 2011. Senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers has improved from bad to mediocre as a passer, completing 55.3 percent after completing 50.0 percent last season, but he is not running as much (46 carries for 36 yards, counting sacks, compared to 420 rushing yards in 2011). Wide receiver Jordan Matthews is dangerous, although his average per catch has slid from 19.0 a year ago to 13.9. There just aren't enough weapons to bother Florida.

    4) What is Vanderbilt's biggest concern defensively?

    The run defense has been surprisingly poor, which bodes well for Mike Gillislee. Opponents are averaging 179 yards on the ground, almost 50 more than a year ago. Georgia ripped off 302 yards, South Carolina rushed for 205 yards, Northwestern 191 and Missouri 150. The loss of four-year starting linebacker Chris Marve, who had a team-high 91 tackles last season, has hurt more than expected. The Commodores simply don't have a difference-maker on defense. Experience is not the issue. Ten of Vanderbilt's top 11 tacklers are upperclassmen, and the Commodores returned seven defensive starters.

    5) Have the Commodores ever pulled off an upset of this magnitude?

    Almost. In 2007, they stunned sixth-ranked South Carolina 17-6 in Columbia. In 2008, they beat No. 13 Auburn 14-13 at home. And last year, they came oh-so-close to beating No 8 Arkansas at home. The Commodores were winning 28-20 in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the Razorbacks 5 when Stacy fumbled. The Hogs returned it 94 yards for score, made a tying 2-point conversion and kicked a game-winning field goal later. Actually, that would have been more impressive than the aforementioned victories. South Carolina lost its last five games in 2007. Auburn lost five of its last six in 2008. Still, Franklin has the Commodores believing they can play with anyone, and they try to win rather than just stay close, which appeared to be the overriding philosophy of all of his predecessors.

    FIVE TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Here's a list of five Commodores players Gator fans will want to keep an eye on
    1) Zac Stacy, a 5-foot-9, 210 pound senior running back
    Smith Says: Stacy battled nagging injuries in the first two games, leading to his slow start. When healthy, he is a threat to a defense even as good as Florida's. He threw two passes vs. Missouri, completing one for 24 yards.
    2) Jordan Matthews, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior wide receiver
    Smith Says: Matthews burned South Carolina's elite defense for 147 yards on eight catches, including a 78-yard touchdown. He had 715 receiving yards in Vandy's last eight games a year ago.
    3) Chase Garnham, a 6-foot-3, 234-pound junior outside linebacker
    Smith Says: If the Commodores have a playmaker on defense, it's Garnham. He has 32 tackles and two sacks. Yep, we're stretching here.
    4) Trey Wilson, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior cornerback
    Smith Says: A year after making three interceptions, he has only one pick through five games, but he returned it 100 yards for a TD against Presbyterian. Vandy lists him as a third-team preseason All-SEC pick by AP. Does AP even pick a third team?
    5) Carey Spear, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior placekicker
    Smith Says: Spear is a perfect 9 of 9 on field goal tries from 45 yards or closer. With Vandy likely struggling to reach the end zone against Florida's tough D, he can keep the 'Dores close.

    1) Florida has beaten Vanderbilt 21 straight times, including 20 in a row since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992 and the teams began playing annually. The Commodores' only hope may be knocking Gillislee out of the game. Vanderbilt beat Florida 24-9 in 1988 when Emmitt Smith sat out with an injury.
    2) No Vanderbilt defensive player cracked Phil Steele's preseason first, second, third or fourth teams in the SEC. Ouch. That's how anonymous these guys are. No one has more than two sacks, and the Commodores have two interceptions.
    3) Vanderbilt has lost 15 in a row to ranked opponents, and the common denominator is offensive struggles. Aside from last year's close call to Arkansas, the Commodores scored zero against Alabama and 3 against South Carolina in 2011, 3 against LSU, 7 against South Carolina and 14 against Arkansas in 2010, 9 against LSU, 7 against Ole Miss and 10 against South Carolina in 2009 and 14 against Georgia and 14 against Florida in 2008.
    4) Empty seats are the norm in Nashville, but not this time. The game sold out earlier this week, marking the first sellout for a Vandy home game since 2008, also against Florida. Vanderbilt Stadium's capacity is slightly under 40,000.
    5) Vanderbilt has 13 players from Florida, including starting senior linebacker Archibald Barnes of Tampa and starting senior defensive end Johnell Thomas of Orlando. Nine of them have signed since Franklin became coach in 2011. Florida has no player from Tennessee.

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