The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Florida

Following a program-defining win, the Commodores will host the Florida Gators with a great opportunity to build momentum for Team 2.
Vanderbilt+defense+during+their+24-21+victory+over+Kentucky+on+Nov+12%2C+2022+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt defense during their 24-21 victory over Kentucky on Nov 12, 2022 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

After the Hawaii win, hopes were high in Nashville. Vanderbilt fans, myself included, may have gotten a bit ahead of themselves looking ahead in the schedule after the 53-point whomping. Even after the loss to Wake Forest, the Commodores still finished their non-conference slate 3-1, topping their projected season win total in just four games. It looked like it could be the year where Vanderbilt finally broke their atrocious 26-game SEC losing streak.

The two games that Commodore fans circled on their calendars were matchups against an average Missouri team and a struggling South Carolina squad. Vanderbilt almost pulled it off in Columbia, but stalled out on the last drive, falling 17-14 to the Tigers. Then, after the bye week, the Vanderbilt defense made Spencer Rattler look like the next Joe Montana as he gashed the Commodore defense and marched out of Nashville with a double-digit win

Nobody thought Vanderbilt would stand a chance against the No. 24 Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington against their NFL-ready quarterback Will Levis. Entering Saturday’s matchup, there was a lot of uncertainty around the Vanderbilt football program, from AJ Swann being ruled out with an injury to the recent controversy regarding assistant coach Dan Jackson

Somehow, the Commodore defense stiffened up, Mike Wright took complete command of the game and the Commodores broke a 26-game SEC losing streak against one of their hardest opponents this season. 

Can the Commodores find more of that magic this week against an underrated Florida Gators team? The Gators lost earlier this year to the same Kentucky team that Vanderbilt just stunned, but they also just demolished South Carolina last week. 

Both of these teams are riding high, so let’s look at the key matchups that Vanderbilt will need to dominate in order to secure a win before Thanksgiving.

Will Sheppard vs. Florida secondary

In his junior season, Will Sheppard has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver for the Commodores. His combination of size, length and range make him an appealing target for whichever Vandy signal caller is under center. His 52 receptions and 9 touchdown catches are both good for being second in the SEC, and his 708 yards trails only Jonathan Mingo and Jalin Hyatt in the conference.

With Mike Wright under center, the passing game is less emphasized in Joey Lynch’s system, but Sheppard’s production has not seen a dip under Wright. He fell under 30 yards in only one game this season and has caught at least 3 passes in every contest.

The Florida secondary tasked with containing Sheppard and company has been up and down this season, although they’ve faced some extremely explosive passing attacks. They’ve let up a 100-yard receiver in half of their games this season and have given up the fourth most passing yards in the SEC. However, the Gators also have the fourth most interceptions in the conference and are coming off a game where they let up merely 145 yards passing. 

If Sheppard can find soft spots in the Gator defense, it could make Wright’s job a lot easier and indicate success to come for the ‘Dores.

Mobile quarterbacks vs. Front lines

The two quarterbacks playing in this game are as electrifying on the ground as anybody in the nation. Wright and Anthony Richardson are first and second in the SEC for yards per carry (min. 50 attempts), and Wright has 454 rushing yards in only 4 games started. It will be imperative for both teams to gameplan against the opposing signal-caller’s mobility.

In Florida’s only two games putting up less than 20 points, Richardson was stuffed on the ground, rushing 17 times for 23 yards in the two contests. Wright, similarly, had only 17 yards on the ground in his only loss as a starter this year.

So what capacity does Vandy’s defense have to stop Richardson on the ground?

The last dual threat quarterback the Commodores faced was Mississippi’s Jaxson Dart, who shredded their defense with his arm alone. Before that, it was Alabama’s Bryce Young, who also dominated the Vandy defense without needing his legs. The last quarterback to fight to establish his run potential against Vanderbilt? was Elon’s Matthew Mckay, who ran for 52 yards and 2 touchdowns on 13 attempts in the teams’ September showdown. Based on the Elon matchup, it this dynamic be a challenge for Clark Lea’s defense.

As for the Gators? Since Week Four, they have done very well in limiting the rushing potential of quarterbacks, specifically holding LSU’s Jayden Daniels to just 44 yards on the ground. However, in three of their first four games, the opposing quarterback rushed for at least 90 yards. There is an opening for Wright to run wild against this defense.

Whichever team takes advantage of its quarterback’s dual-threat ability and establishes an option run game will have success in this football game.

Florida vs. Cold weather

Florida generally does not have to worry about the weather in its games. It can get humid and wet in the swamp, but the temperature on the other side of the scale is never an issue at home, where they play two-thirds of their games this year. Even on the road, it generally stays pretty warm in the SEC. 

The same cannot be said for the weather in Nashville in mid-November. It’s not the frozen tundra, but it’s far from what either team, especially Florida, is really used to. The weather report has the high temperature on Saturday reaching 44 degrees, so at kickoff, it will most likely be in the high 30s or low 40s. 

Though neither of these teams have played in the cold thus far this year, you could argue that they are both designed to do so. Cold weather games are won in the trenches and on the ground most of the time, and both of these teams emphasize the run game heavily with their quarterbacks and running backs. Ray Davis is arguably the best player on the offensive side of the ball for Vanderbilt, and Wright is arguably a better runner than passer.

As for Florida, Richardson has done most of his damage this year on the ground, and they have a running back-by-committee approach that devastates defenses. Their three leading rushers all average over 6 yards a carry on over 85 attempts. Montrell Johnson Jr. is the lead back, and Trevor Etienne, the little brother of Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back Travis Etienne, acts as a change of pace back. The team is averaging over 200 yards on the ground per game.

Will these teams be able to adjust to the cold? Whichever team does a better job might have the key to winning this game.

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About the Contributor
Noah Roslin, Former Staff Writer
Noah Roslin ('26) is planning to double major in human and organizational development and economics in Peabody College. When not writing for The Hustler, you can usually find Noah at the hockey rink, at the tennis courts or at home looking for new Soundcloud remixes.
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