Behind Enemy Bylines: Florida Gators

The Vanderbilt Hustler caught up with River Wells, Sports Editor of The Alligator, ahead of Vanderbilt’s matchup against Florida.

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Amir Abdul-Rahman sets up at the line of scrimmage in Vanderbilt’s 41-7 loss against LSU on Oct. 3, 2020. (Hustler Multimedia/Hunter Long)

Alyssa Muir, Deputy Sports Editor

Coming off of a close 38-35 loss at Kentucky, the Vanderbilt Commodores will face their toughest opponent yet as they host the sixth-ranked Florida Gators this week. Florida sits at 5-1 on the season, the only blemish to their record coming on a close, 41-38 loss at Texas A&M. The Gators have the 4th ranked passing offense in all of college football at 371.1 yards per game which will be an immense challenge for a depleted Vanderbilt secondary. 

Prior to kickoff, The Hustler caught up with River Wells, Sports Editor of The Alligator, to preview Saturday’s game.

Vanderbilt Hustler: Florida’s coming off of a dominating victory against Arkansas and a basically SEC East-clinching win against Georgia the week before that. What’s the ceiling for this team?

River Wells: They’re most likely going to get to the SEC Championship and face a very strong Alabama team. If you asked me right now, I’d say I don’t think they win it. But [quarterback Kyle] Trask is obviously a Heisman candidate. Maybe the defense shows massive improvement from here on out, they do play some very weak opponents to finish out the season. They have to put in a good defensive performance against Alabama to win, assuming it is, in fact, Alabama that makes it to that game. 

With that, I’d say, a New Year’s Six bowl. But if the defense can shape up and the offense can put up some crazy points against Alabama’s defense, then the ceiling could be beyond that. 

Kyle Trask has been phenomenal all season and last week was probably his best performance completing 23 of 29 passes for 356 yards and six touchdowns, putting himself in the Heisman conversation. Is there anything the Vanderbilt defense can do to slow him down at all? 

If you would like me to be truthful, probably not. Vanderbilt’s probably the weakest team Florida plays on the schedule this year; they haven’t won a game yet. Trask has played some pretty decent defenses in the SEC and still put up quite a few yards and touchdowns. So I think if Vanderbilt is to win this game, it would have to focus on exploiting the Gator’s defense instead. 

The Gator defense has been up-and-down all season with the low point coming in their 41-38 loss against Texas A&M. What have you seen from that group since that loss? 

The Missouri game was really good for that unit. Then the next game against Georgia they did what they had to do there. You did see some concerns with the fact that [Georgia quarterback] Stetson Bennet was having a lot of trouble with that deep ball. If he hits some of those passes, that could be a different game. Against Arkansas, Feleipe Franks, who is of course familiar with Florida’s defensive scheme, put in a performance to be proud of at the Swamp. Arkansas scored on plays of more than 40 yards three times. With that in mind, if anything ends up being the achilles heel of this team, it’s still the defense. They still have some questions even though some aspects of it have definitely improved since that A&M game. 

The Vanderbilt offense has been steadily improving throughout the season, scoring 35 points last week against Kentucky, where can they take advantage of the Gator defense? 

The secondary. Aside from Kaiir Elam, the secondary is pretty brutal, especially the safeties. Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner are back there and that’s probably, in my eyes, the most exploitable part of Florida’s defense. So if you can manage to get the receivers open towards the middle of the field and possibly get them beat on the corners, the safety help might not be there. Florida’s front seven is performing better of late and the linebackers in the middle are also doing a pretty decent job at stopping the run. So it will have to be done through passing. Considering the fact that they blitz a lot, especially on third-down, if you can beat them there and force balls in the secondary, I don’t know if the secondary is strong enough to combat that. 

Star tight end Kyle Pitts will be out for the second straight week with a concussion and broken nose. How will this affect the Florida offense?

If you watched Arkansas [last week], I’d say [it doesn’t really affect the offense]. Florida still managed to get the ball to ten different receivers against Arkansas. With threats like [wide receivers] Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney, there’s so many weapons on this offense here. Pitts is probably the best tight end in the nation, but even in his absence, I think there’s definitely plenty of other players they can lean on. And the run game’s been getting steadily better too. It’s really a complete offense. 

What’s your score prediction for the game this Saturday? 

Florida 45, Vanderbilt 21

This content has been edited for clarity and length.