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

The Commodores hope to re-enter the win column with a road victory over a recently humbled Florida team.
Junior+Sherrill+celebrates+after+burning+the+Missouri+defense+for+his+first+career+touchdown+on+Seot.+30%2C+2023.+%28Hustler+Multimedia%2FBarrie+Barto%29
Barrie Barto
Junior Sherrill celebrates after burning the Missouri defense for his first career touchdown on Seot. 30, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

Vanderbilt will travel to Gainesville, Fla., with one foot in the grave after surrendering its fourth loss of the season at the hands of the Missouri Tigers. Senior quarterback Ken Seals made his first start in two seasons after getting the nod over struggling sophomore AJ Swann. However, Seals could not seal the deal and the Commodores fell to the Tigers 38-21, dropping them to 2-4 on the season. 

The loss was not completely unexpected, as Missouri was ranked No. 23 in the nation going into the game with an undefeated record and a ranked win over Kansas State under their belt. Despite Missouri’s ranking, the Vanderbilt offense was still able to record three touchdowns, proving the program’s penchant for finding the endzone. The defense ultimately let the game get away, as they allowed 532 total yards for 38 points.

The Gators also hope to rebound this Saturday, Oct. 7, following their 14-33 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats over the weekend. After being ranked No. 22 the week prior, the Gators fell out of the latest AP Top 25 Poll. 

Though still mathematically possible, Saturday’s loss to Missouri made Vanderbilt’s bowl chances rather unfeasible considering the remaining conference schedule. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and if the Commodores capitalize on a few key matchups this Saturday against Florida, they can walk out of Gainesville one step closer to postseason play.

Vanderbilt’s secondary vs. Graham Mertz

While not touted for his high volume, Florida’s redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz has been one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation this season. The Wisconsin transfer has a 79.0% completion rate through five starts, good enough for the third highest mark among FBS quarterbacks with more than 50 pass attempts.

Unfortunately, the Commodores will oppose Mertz with a defense that has allowed an average of 261.0 passing yards per game, good for the third worst passing defense in the SEC. Considering Mertz’s lethal capacity, a Commodore victory could likely only be secured with air-tight coverage down the field. If Vanderbilt’s secondary continues to play like it did against Missouri, when it gave up 395 passing yards, it would allow Florida to pursue a much more aggressive passing strategy with the third most accurate quarterback in the nation.

Vanderbilt is not devoid of depth at defensive backs, but an upset would require them to live up to play at a level they have yet to play at all season. Against Missouri, Vanderbilt cornerbacks let up four touchdown passes, three of which they were simply beaten over the shoulder for. Highly touted true freshman Martel Hight and redshirt freshman Trudell Berry were both track stars in high school. To beat Florida, the cornerback duo must try to use their speed while in coverage.

Will Sheppard vs. The future

Placed on the 2023 Biletnikoff Award preseason watchlist, senior wide receiver Will Sheppard has had many expectations placed on his shoulders. And so far, he has lived up to all of them. Through six games, Sheppard has already recorded seven receiving touchdowns, good enough for second in the SEC. While Vanderbilt’s season may be circling the drain at the moment, Sheppard’s career has been soaring. A notable performance against Florida would not only be essential to turning Vanderbilt’s season around, but also to raising Sheppard’s draft stock and, consequently, the program’s morale. 

This season, Florida has had the best passing defense in the SEC, only allowing 144.0 yards per game. A game against one of the best passing defenses in the nation offers a unique opportunity to Sheppard, an opportunity to prove he can produce no matter the opposition. Few cornerbacks are able to combat Sheppard’s insane catch radius. Paired with breakneck speed, Sheppard should be able to outrun any Gator, even without zig-zagging. A good game could push him to the top of draft boards and Vanderbilt out of last in the SEC East table.

Vanderbilt’s backfield vs. A vulnerable Florida run defense

The Gators’ humbling loss to Kentucky was headlined by their helpless run defense that gave up 329 rushing yards. Kentucky exposed a serious weakness in Florida’s game, and at the forefront of the rush was none other than former Vanderbilt running back, Re’Mahn “Ray” Davis. The now fifth-year senior spent two seasons at Vanderbilt under coach Clark Lea before transferring to Kentucky this past offseason.

Davis bobbed and weaved for 280 yards rushing and four total touchdowns against the Gators. Last year, while still a Vanderbilt athlete, Davis rushed for another impressive mark of 122 yards against Florida. Hopefully, Davis’s results reveal that Vanderbilt products are nightmares for Florida’s run defense. Vanderbilt’s running back room boasts a talented group that has yet to explode in SEC play but certainly has the potential to.

Freshman Sedrick Alexander showed serious promise earlier in the season against Alabama A&M when he rushed for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Alexander added another touchdown against Kentucky and has averaged 4.1 yards per carry this season, an impressive figure for a true freshman. Against Kentucky, Alexander showed off his speed but, more notably, his ability to pick up yards after contact. He broke a tackle before splaying out to reach the goal line on his seven yard touchdown carry against the Wildcats. Alexander’s agility and vision could play a key role in dismantling Florida.

Junior Patrick Smith and sophomore Chase Gillespie join Alexander to form the elusive backfield that could bag a win for Vanderbilt.

The Commodores set sail for Gainesville in search of their first conference win on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 3 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributors
Vincent Xu
Vincent Xu, Sports Copy Editor
Vincent Xu (‘27) is planning on majoring in economics with a minor in data science in the College of Arts and Science. Outside of The Hustler, Vincent enjoys playing sports, watching sports, talking sports and a couple of other things that are sadly unrelated to sports. He can be reached at [email protected].
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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