Florida needed a late 43-yard field goal to put away Vanderbilt and clinch the SEC East title.
If only for a day, Florida football reverted to 2014 form. The 10th-ranked Gators, who are very much in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth following the selection committee’s initial rankings released Tuesday, nearly laid a colossal egg Saturday against Vanderbilt. Still, coach Jim McElwain’s team survived with a 9–7 win over the Commodores, improving its record to 8–1 and securing the program’s first outright SEC East title since ’09.
Here are three thoughts on the game.
1. Florida’s resurgent campaign narrowly avoided a major setback
Here is what was at stake for the Gators entering Saturday: They could clinch the SEC East title; they could continue a meteoric trajectory under first-year coach McElwain, who had taken a team that went 11–13 over the past two seasons and immediately transformed it into a 7–1 contender; they could keep their national title aspirations—however unlikely—alive, as winning out against a schedule that includes Vanderbilt, South Carolina, FAU, Florida State and the SEC West champion would all but lock up a spot in the four-team field.
All of those things are still on the table, but just barely. Florida kept its grandiose aspirations intact behind a victory that was unmistakably ugly.
Much like in recent seasons, Florida’s problems all came on the offensive side of the ball. The Gators had four turnovers, the most costly of which might have been junior wide receiver Demarcus Robinson’s fumble deep in Vanderbilt territory early in the fourth quarter. Sophomore quarterback Treon Harris appeared lost for most of the afternoon, going 12 of 24 for 155 yards with an interception. And the running game just couldn’t generate any production; it accounted for a mere 95 yards a week after punishing Georgia for 258 as part of a 27–3 rout.
But unlike many results from the past two seasons, Florida found a way to come out on top anyway. Its defense was stifling—it held Vandy quarterback Johnny McCrary to 3 of 14 passing—and limited the Commodores to just 177 total yards. Although the Gators suffered some kicking woes (Neil MacInnes missed the extra point attempt after the team’s only touchdown), junior Austin Hardin converted a 43-yard field goal to give them a lead with less than three minutes remaining.
This game proved Florida still has a lot to work on, but that’s a lot easier to stomach when it’s accompanied by an SEC East crown. The Gators can regroup before visiting South Carolina next weekend.
2. The SEC can breathe a huge sigh of relief
A Vanderbilt win here would have been a terrible outcome for the league. The SEC is already down to three legitimate playoff contenders—LSU, Alabama and Florida—and a loss by the Gators would have put the onus on the victor of Saturday’s night clash between the Tigers and Crimson Tide to win out. Remember, even if Alabama beats LSU, it doesn’t control its destiny in the SEC West. Ole Miss topped the Tide 43–37 on Sept. 19 and would need to lose again for Alabama to go to Atlanta.
As it stands, Florida remains a dark-horse playoff threat (Saturday’s win didn’t exactly bolster the Game Control portion of its résumé), but a playoff threat nonetheless. That’s saying something given where many fans and analysts expected this program to be in the preseason, and it’s good for the conference as a whole.
3. Derek Mason knows how to call a defense
Second-year Vanderbilt coach Mason turned quite a few heads this winter when he announced that he would assume ex-coordinator David Kotulski’s duties in calling the defensive plays. Mason, who served as Stanford’s defensive coordinator from 2011-13, wanted to fix a unit that allowed 5.72 yards per play in ’14, 81st in the FBS.
He is certainly on the right track. Entering Saturday the Commodores had given up an average of just 4.86 yards per play, 28th nationally, and they held the Gators to just 256 yards in their losing effort. Vandy still has a ways to go to reach the success it enjoyed during James Franklin’s tenure, but Mason’s group has showed occasional signs of life in recent weeks. It beat Missouri 10–3 on Oct. 24, and it’ll look to finish strong against Kentucky, Texas A&M and Tennessee.