Photo credit: Alex Shepherd
The last time the Gators were coming off a loss this season, the overall perception of the squad was vastly different than it is now.
Going toe-to-toe with the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, outsiders believed that Florida asserted themselves as legitimate contenders for the SEC and College Football Playoff in 2021.
However, a major gripe of Dan Mullen’s tenure in playing to the level of their opponents changed the trajectory of their season last weekend in their loss to Kentucky.
Instead, Florida surrendered their title as a contender and have now been deemed a pretender.
Just five games into the season, UF still believes they have something to play for and look to bounce back against Vanderbilt on Saturday.
To do so, they will need to home in on two key matchups, both focused on atoning for the sins of their past.
Gators Defense vs. Vanderbilt QB Ken Seals
Through three games of SEC action, Florida's defense with three vastly different quarterbacks for the first time in Alabama's Bryce Young, Tennessee's Hendon Hooker and Kentucky's Will Levis.
Now, Florida will be lining up against a familiar face at quarterback.
As a second-year starter for the Commodores, Ken Seals has a breadth of valuable in-game experience as a true sophomore and posted career numbers in his last meeting with the Gators.
Accounting for 319 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on about 65% completion against UF last season, Seals had Todd Grantham’s defense on the ropes after the first quarter.
Finding himself lead the Commodores to a 10-7 lead after the first 15 minutes, Seals created unwarranted confidence in a Vandy squad that would close the 2020 season without a win with his early performance.
Exploiting the holes in Florida’s defense — as every team did in 2020 — Seals looks to replicate his inspired outing on the road this season.
He will be required to.
If Vanderbilt looks to compete with the Gators that are sure to be awake after laying a dud on the road last weekend, it all starts with Seals.
Meanwhile, the Gators defense cannot afford a repeat of last year in any fashion. As a unit that has drastically improved, albeit concerns for tackling remaining the same, there is no excuse for not playing to their highest potential.
Being the major factor for Florida only losing by seven to Kentucky last week instead of more, UF finally has an opportunity to avenge one of the stains left on their record from last season when facing Seals.
As an offense that has been stagnant at points this season — including just a three-point outing to in a loss to open the season against ETSU — Vanderbilt presents no threat to the Gators defense.
As a result, Florida has a chance to make a statement before heading into the difficult stretch of its schedule. They can’t squander this opportunity like they have others in the past.
In fact, to truly get their message across that the season isn’t completely lost, they need to take a page out of their rival's playbook and shut them out like Georgia a few weeks ago.
Florida Gators vs. Themselves
Before focusing on winning matchups against others, Florida needs to undergo a system reboot in week six, focusing on discipline to avoid beating themselves, again.
As well as Kentucky performed to take down the Gators last Saturday in Lexington, the root of Florida's issues came from their evident self-inflicted wounds.
Entering into their first true road game of the 2021 season, the Gators would be forced to tackle the expected chaos of Kroger Field if they wanted to remain on course for an SEC East title and return to Atlanta.
Accounting for 15 total penalties on the evening for 115 yards, including eight false starts, UF struggled to establish a rhythm offensively. Due to the constant setbacks, Florida scored their lowest point total, 13, in any game since Oct. 1, 2016.
Lowlighted by struggles from an offensive line unit that has blown preseason expectations out of the water thus far this season, Florida continued negating considerable gains and putting themselves behind the sticks with penalties.
With issues in communication due to the noise the Kentucky crowd generated and uncharacteristic conservativeness from play-caller Dan Mullen reigning supreme, Florida has glaring questions to answer.
As a result, a centerpiece of the Florida game plan in their upcoming contest needs to be the fundamental aspect of the game, especially with a trip to the always jarring Baton Rouge on the horizon.
The first opportunity to bounce back comes at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for homecoming. Playing against a less-than-formidable Vanderbilt team on Saturday, the only way Florida allows the Commodores to remain in the game is by continuing the miscues of a week ago.
As a result, the Gators have to be nearly perfect in every aspect of the game and control what they can control. They need to be penalty-free.
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