The Florida Gators are 2-0 in the SEC, specifically the SEC East. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Gators still don't look like a very good team, which means if they don't improve soon, they will reach the end of the regular season with at least four losses, maybe five. Florida has to be better this Saturday against Vanderbilt than it was against either Tennessee or Kentucky. Though Vanderbilt lost by 59 points to Alabama, the Commodores have a defense which can make the Gators' lives miserable in Week 5.
Here are three keys to a Florida victory against Vanderbilt:
1) PLAY QUICKLY -- NOT IN TERMS OF TEMPO, BUT FLUIDITY
One of the shining moments in Florida football history was the 2007 BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State. Florida's offense for much of the 2006 season was pedestrian. Chris Leak was a caretaker and game manager of a modest offense which minimized its mistakes and allowed a strong defense (plus the special teams unit) to win games. Against Ohio State, the Buckeyes figured to have the high-powered offense with the speed and athleticism to make the game a mismatch, but Florida became the team which dazzled on offense.
That game wasn't a product of extraordinary play calls (though Dan Mullen's work was certainly sound and effective). The difference is that Florida players ran faster and crisper routes. Execution was not just proper in terms of technique but vigorous in terms of effort. Players simply operated at a faster pace. The tempo of the offense was not accelerated in terms of no-huddle or hurry-up concepts. Plays simply involved more precision, efficiency and speed. The team was coached to play harder, and it did.
This is what has eluded Jim McElwain in 2017, and this is what he and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier must generate from their players. The play selection could be better, but if players aren't running routes hard and running backs aren't hitting holes at full speed, and blockers aren't firing off the ball as intently as they could, the quality of play call won't matter nearly as much.
Florida offensive players have to improve the precision of their techniques and the quality of their efforts. It sounds generalized and broad, but this offense just doesn't look imposing, and that comes from both effort and talent, the latter ingredient being affected by the ongoing credit card fraud investigation at UF.
2) GET IN KYLE SHURMUR'S FACE
Vanderbilt's offense is not good right now. It could bust out with a big game on Saturday, but so far this season, it has been ordinary at best, and often much worse. Vanderbilt has scored a total of 14 points in its past two games. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur is still waiting for a high-impact performance this season. It is clear that a defense which can crowd him in the pocket and minimize the amount of room he has to move around will succeed against him. Kansas State and especially Alabama played with more than enough physicality to put Shurmur in predictable passing situations and then fence in a tight pocket, causing Shurmur to dwell on and think about his limited options as a passer.
Florida's defense had its moments against Kentucky, and it did play well in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line, earning a one-point win, but Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson landed his fair share of punches, too. If Florida allows the 27 points to Vanderbilt that it conceded to Kentucky, the odds are that the Gators will lose. Vanderbilt's defense is too strong to commit enough breakdowns to allow Florida 28 points. The Gators would likely need defensive or special teams touchdowns to score 28 points in this game. Preventing Vanderbilt's offense from gaining confidence is a central pathway to victory. Since Shurmur is the nerve center of the Commodores' offensive attack, rattling him and making him doubt himself represent foremost keys for Florida in its attempt to hold Vanderbilt under 15 points (if not fewer).
3) MISDIRECTION PLAYS IN BIG SITUATIONS
When Vanderbilt beat Kansas State in Week 3, Kansas State did not change the direction of the pursuit lanes from Vanderbilt defenders. Kansas State used out routes and other relatively simple one-directional pass patterns in an attempt to beat Derek Mason's defense. The Wildcats didn't have a chance. Vanderbilt's secondary swallowed up the KSU receivers and won virtually every 50-50 ball. With Antonio Callaway still out and Florida needing more of its skill people to step up on offense, it is not easy -- and probably not wise -- to expect strong performances on offense well down the depth chart.
The Gators need an equalizer or -- if not that -- a countermove to offset the advantages defenses have against them. A good place to start is the use of misdirection plays, particularly on third downs or in other vital situations. Change-of-pace plays might not all work, but they will make Vanderbilt conscious of the need to stay at home and show discipline. This can minimize the number of times Vanderbilt might decide to blitz. Concerns about misdirection might keep the Commodores' front seven off balance -- just enough to give Feleipe Franks and/or Luke Del Rio a little more time in the pocket.
That little extra bit of time could mean the difference between a winning day and a losing one, between drive-killing interceptions and completed first-down passes which sustain drives.
One can see that the value of misdirection plays lies not just in the possibility and hope of getting home-run plays and scoring quick-strike touchdowns, but in giving the quarterbacks time to throw. Misdirection plays can serve multiple purposes in this game, not just one.