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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the Gators' Loss to Vanderbilt

Examining the good, the bad and the ugly from an ugly Gators loss in Nashville to Vanderbilt.

Buckle in. There’s a lot to say.

The back-to-back positive showings for the Gators significantly raised expectations for how Florida would close the 2022 season in Billy Napier’s inaugural campaign. After early season indicators suggested eight wins to be far-fetched, Florida made that seem like a greater reality over the past two weeks.

When they traveled to Vanderbilt on Saturday for an 11 a.m. local kickoff, Florida lined up as 14-point favorites over Vanderbilt looking to set up arguably the most competitive Sunshine State rivalry matchup against FSU since 2012.

However, that wasn’t the case.

Florida sleepwalked onto the field in Nashville for a large portion of the game, and when the Gators did decide to shift gears late in the contest, the comeback attempts proved to be in vain.

The loss will go down as the worst defeat for Napier in his first year as head coach. To this point, losses to three top ten teams and a Kentucky squad that has sat on fringe top 25 territory throughout the bolstered Florida’s resume to present quality losses, if those were to ever exist in college football.

Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is just one game removed from snapping a 26-game losing streak against SEC opponents and hadn’t beaten Florida at home since 1988. That changed on Saturday as they secured their second conference victory since 2019.

All Gators takes an in-depth look at the loss in our weekly The Good, the Bad and the Ugly series.

Good: Rotational Wide Receivers 

Picking out an aspect of Florida’s game that was good on Saturday was a difficult process. The unit started slow, struggled in all three phases of the game and was hamstrung by penalties when it was starting to gain momentum.

However, one aspect of Florida’s team that stepped up, albeit in a loss, was the wide receiver unit as depth pieces made plays to keep the Gators afloat for as long as possible.

They helped contribute to another decent day for quarterback Anthony Richardson through the air as he showed the ability to work all three levels of the field and put balls in perfect spots on throws down the field. The outing produced more positive film for NFL scouts to consider heading into the offseason. 

Richardson — who was handed a heavy workload on the day with 42 attempts — threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns.

Daejon Reynolds was the most notable asset for the Gators as he posted a career-day with his contributions through the air. Accounting for eight receptions, 165 yards and two scores — including a 74-yard post route that he took for the Gators to cut into the Commodores' largest lead of the day.

Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman contributed in a heightened capacity as well, recording three receptions for 38 yards. Marcus Burke also contributed early on in the role the injured Xzavier Henderson holds usually by catching a screen pass and working in presnap motion.

The added depth was crucial for Florida’s comeback attempts late in the contest given the existing injuries and departure of Ricky Pearsall in the first half.

The depth may not carry over into the future, but the elevation of multiple players like Reynolds and Chiaokhiao-Bowman was positive in a performance full of negatives for Florida.

Bad: Florida’s ground game

A large reason the opportunities for wideouts to make plays rose was the result of Florida’s poor rushing attack.

Following their best performance of the season where the Gators ran for 374 yards on South Carolina in the 38-6 win over the Gamecocks, which looked to be the official emergence of the offense’s identity, Florida followed it up with a dud on the ground.

The running game was not only unproductive, with Vandy winning at the line of scrimmage, but it was also underutilized.

Florida called a passing play on 67% of offensive snaps on Saturday, throwing a total of 43 passes despite the presence of a top-15 rushing offense.

The Gators combined for just 45 yards on 21 total attempts. This season's leading rusher Montrell Johnson accounted for 32 yards on 11 carries while his complement Trevor Etienne was limited to nine yards on four carries. A bad snap resulted in an early loss of 18 yards.

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Florida's offensive line was pushed around by the Vanderbilt front and struggled to replicate the success they had seen as of late on the ground while Richardson was a non-factor as a rusher.

This was especially true in the first half as he elected to remain conservative with his legs despite recently stating he was going to make defenders feel him working downhill.

He matched Etienne’s carry count at four for 25 yards to finish as Florida’s second-leading rusher on the day.

The lack of run-play calls was evident in the offensive stagnancy Florida faced early on and carried into the later portions of the game.

Even on the drives the Gators scored on, explosive plays through the passing game — multiple on fourth down — were necessary to maintain possession for a score.

Ugly: The loss itself

Any loss aligning as the ugly is a simplistic outlook, sure. However, in this scenario, it fits as it has the ability to be truly damaging beyond the win-loss column.

Vanderbilt has long sat as the bottom feeder in the Southeastern Conference. They’re the team other SEC programs (or at least their fanbase) pencil in as a win on the schedule yearly.

Even as they trend upward under the leadership of head coach Clark Lea, who is instilling some sense of competitiveness into the Commodores to escape the reality of them being a joker in the deck of aces in the SEC, they’re still enduring that process.

On Saturday, Florida aided that ascension.

The Gators dropped their fifth game of the season but it was arguably the first game that came as a shock. The other four losses were to formidable opponents that were either favorites or thought to have a chance to take down UF.

Vanderbilt was not one of those teams. If the game was replayed tomorrow, the Commodores still wouldn’t be.

The four losses earlier in the year were tough pills to swallow but were equated to just being part of the process while Florida attempts to rebuild itself after 11 seasons of underperformance.

This one is the first loss of real concern.

But, I’d like to contend that the poor loss on Saturday isn’t indicative of future success for this Florida team or head coach Billy Napier in his tenure.

In fact, poor year-one losses have been shown to ignite programs to new heights in the coming years. In Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama, the Crimson Tide dropped a home contest to Louisiana-Monroe at home en route to a 7-6 season in 2007. 

Saban and his team used that to turn Bama into college football’s modern dynasty and the undenied top blue blood the sport has to offer. Smart followed his mentor’s footsteps in year one at Georgia, dropping a game at home to Vanderbilt in his inaugural season as head coach 17-16. Georgia is now bidding to defend their first national championship victory since 1980 in 2022.

That’s not to draw comparisons to two of the best coaches in college football at the moment or a prediction that Florida will replicate their success. Very few coaches will be able to. But, if Napier is able to elevate to the status he’s expected to in the coming years, Saban and Smart will be the coaches he’s equated to.

The expectations at Florida are high. Aspirations for returning glory to Gainesville with conference and national championships are a reason why there have been four coaches in just over a decade with the team.

The loss — despite presenting some sense of concern given its magnitude — will be bearable during the transition process that 2022 quickly turned into if recruiting continues to trend upward as Napier’s culture is implemented at UF.

However, moving forward into the coming years, it won’t be. Napier seemed to understand that fact during his postgame press conference, at least to a degree. 

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