An ultra-competitive conference slate has made things difficult for Florida in its attempt to repeat as national champions. The schedule is only getting tougher for Vanderbilt.
The 18th-ranked Gators (5-3, 3-3 SEC) look to avoid another loss when they host the Commodores (5-3, 2-3) on Saturday.
After a 4-0 start, the defending champs have dropped three of their past four games. An upset at the hands of Auburn was followed by a loss at then-No. 1 LSU, and last week, Florida fell 42-30 to then-No. 20 Georgia in Jacksonville.
The defeat to the Bulldogs completed a three-game stretch away from home against ranked opponents for the Gators, just the third time in school history that occurred.
The Gators had their eyes on back-to-back national titles midway through October, but those dreams - and any chance at the SEC title - likely faded away with last week’s loss. Florida trails Georgia by one game in the SEC East and is a half-game behind No. 24 Tennessee, meaning the Gators need plenty of help to repeat as conference champions.
“Losing is definitely tough, especially around here,” Florida halfback Eric Rutledge said. “Right now our main focus is that we have four games left. Winning these next four games is important and you never know what can happen in the SEC. The three we lost are in the past and there is nothing we can do about it now.”
Florida has won 16 straight over Vanderbilt, but this might be the best Commodores team in a quarter century. Vanderbilt stunned then-No. 6 South Carolina 17-6 two weeks ago and beat Miami of Ohio 24-13 on Saturday, giving it five wins in a season for just the seventh time in the last 25 years.
Vanderbilt, which needs one victory to become bowl-eligible, hasn’t been to a bowl game since 1982 - the last year the team posted a non-losing season.
“As important as it is, we don’t run around thinking about a bowl every week,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “We try to get our team playing as well as we can and recruit as hard as we can. What happens, happens.”
The Commodores face a brutal test to end the year. After playing the Gators, Vanderbilt faces Kentucky - which spent much of the season ranked - No. 24 Tennessee and No. 21 Wake Forest to close out the season. And even if the Commodores get the six wins needed, they might not make it to a bowl game. That’s because 11 of the 12 teams in the SEC currently have winning records, and the league only has eight automatic bowl tie-ins.
“We’ve always been told six wins gets you a bowl game. Now, all of a sudden, that may not be good enough. That’s the way it works,” Vanderbilt center Hamilton Holliday said. “We knew the SEC and the East, especially, was going to be real strong and powerful this year. If it takes more than six, we’re prepared to do that. It just gives us that much more intensity.”
Vanderbilt will call on its defense, ranked 14th nationally, to stop the high-powered Gators. Led by sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow, Florida is averaging 39 points per game - 10th in the country. The Gators have averaged 46 points in four home contests.
Tebow, whose Heisman Trophy candidacy likely ended with the loss to Georgia, has carried the load for the Gators this season. He’s thrown 18 touchdown passes to only three interceptions and leads the country in passing efficiency with a 176.5 rating. Tebow also leads Florida with 563 yards rushing and 12 TDs.
What needs to improve for the Gators is their defense. That unit starred in the national championship game, holding Ohio State to 82 offensive yards. In the last four games, though, Florida has allowed an average of more than 400 yards of total offense. In each of the three losses, the defense failed to make critical stops on third and fourth downs.
“The expectation level of playing defense at Florida, that bar is pretty high,” said Gators coach Urban Meyer, who’s 12-1 in November over the last four seasons. “I don’t want to pin it all on defense because it’s certainly not that. You outscore them and you win the game. But the plan to win, No. 1, is always to play great defense.
“And make a stop in any one of those three games and there’s a chance you win the game.”