November 5, 2011
Ah, Homecoming. The pinnacle of color and pageantry in a school’s football season… I should know: I was crowned one of five Homecoming Princesses at Marina High School in what seems now like it was another lifetime (it’s a crowning achievement of my life, which is why I brought it up. See what I did there? “Crowning achievement?” Still thankful, decades later, to the Vikings Band for giving me a sizable edge in vote count.)
Last year, Florida saw a streak of 21 straight wins in Homecoming games snapped by Mississippi State… the Bulldogs earned their first win at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 1965. Will it be “deja vu all over again?” Vanderbilt has won only once at “The Swamp,” long before Steve Spurrier came up with the nickname – back in 1945.
As you’ve seen in newspapers all week, Gators running back Chris Rainey continues to deal with the ankle injury he suffered last week vs. Georgia – he is a game-time decision. I will ask head coach Will Muschamp tomorrow morning about Rainey’s availability – the interview will run on College GameDay.
There are a few keys that will mandate success for the Gators vs. Vanderbilt.
First, the offense needs to find more success in the running game. While the Gators rank 8th overall in the SEC in “conference games” in rushing offense, with 119 rush yards per league game… a closer examination of the last four games – all losses against BCS top 25 teams – shows that the rushing offense has dropped to 43.8 rush yards per game in that span. Vs. Alabama, Florida netted only 15 rushing yards on 29 carries (4 sacks affecting that number); vs. Georgia, the Gators netted minus-19 rushing yards on 22 carries (again, sacks a culprit - with UGA amassing SIX).
On defense, Florida ranks last in the league in Turnover Margin in all games, at -8 overall. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told us he has high expectations for the Gators’ ability to force turnovers because they spend a lot of time working on “Rips, Strips, Bats & Picks” (I loved that) in practice.
There is a question mark at PK for the Commodores. Head coach James Franklin told us Thursday that his players compete for their starting positions every week in practice, so a competition over who will kick field goals and extra points has been consistent… however, the placekicking battle between former incumbent Ryan Fowler and Carey Spear was likely renewed when Spear missed a 27-yard field goal with time winding down to tie the game last Saturday vs. Arkansas. At the time of our call, Franklin wasn’t sure which player would be handling the duties on Saturday. Fowler kicked as a RS-Fr in ’09 and was 16-21 on FG and 20-20 on extra points, earning a spot on SEC All-Freshman team. Numbers went down for Fowler last year (8-13 FG, 23-24 PAT) and then Spear won the starting job during camp for this season, after handling kickoff duties last year.
Close home losses to Georgia and Arkansas leave the ‘Dores feeling like there are two more conference wins they could’ve had. Franklin told us that the mood in the locker room after the loss to ARK was one of frustration – VU felt like they gave that game away to the Razorbacks last week, but Franklin stressed – both immediately after the game and again at practice Sunday – that it wasn’t one play that defined the disappointment. Vandy is viewing it as a “team” loss… between untimely turnovers, turnovers Commodores players should have forced (several potential interceptions) and decisions made by the coaching staff (in one specific example, Franklin said he would’ve called a timeout on that final drive to stress the importance of getting into the endzone and putting the game away.)
Regardless, Franklin says, “week in, week out, we’re playing at a very high level… we’ve gotten better every week, vs. a very high level of competition.” He told us what he really loves about this VU team is how it keeps showing fight and resiliency: “I’m a firm believer that if we keep doing that, good things are going to happen.”
WHAT’S AT STAKE:
Both teams are 4-4, with all four losses coming against SEC opponents that are ranked in the BCS Top 25 this week.
Remember, SIX wins are needed for postseason eligibility, and time is running out for both teams.
After tomorrow’s showdown, the Gators three final games are at South Carolina, then home vs. Furman and Florida State. The Commodores are home vs. Kentucky (next weekend on the SEC Network), then finish at Tennessee and at Wake Forest.
Scott Carter (@GatorZoneScott) shares 10 Things to Keep an Eye On and writes about how Will Muschamp believes staying the course will lead to success (he reiterated that theme with us in our meetings today.)
Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge (@JeffLockridge) of the Tennessean asked Gators beat writer Rachel George (@osgators) of the Orlando Sentinel 5 questions regarding the Gators… she did the same, in turn, asking about the Dores. I love it when the beat writers participate in these – and most of them do… they all seem to have pals to exchange comments with, leading up to conference games. I’m a big fan of both of these writers, too, for what it’s worth.
Here is the latest list of affiliates for where you can watch this week’s SEC Network Game… consider it an early warm-up for what’s happening Saturday night, when South Carolina travels to Fayetteville AND LSU to Tuscaloosa.
By my count, that’s TWO SEC matchups pitting teams that are in the Top Ten in the BCS against each other. Clearly, they’re both MAJOR… but only one is #1 vs. #2. Check here for this Saturday’s SEC on TV lineup.
See you tomorrow from The Swamp. Coverage starts at Noon ET/11 AM CT.
In my next blog, I’ll explain how this mystery man made our crew’s Thursday night in Gainesville…