It is the band of brothers that is Florida's wide receivers who took it upon themselves to cure any hangover from the Gators' 24-17 loss to Georgia. In their meeting room last Sunday, there was no discussion whatsoever about what went wrong in Jacksonville, only what needed to take place every day in practice leading up to Vanderbilt. Never mind that this was Vanderbilt, a team heading nowhere with a loss to lowly UNLV on its 2019 slate. The opponent didn't matter, just that it was an opportunity for a measure of redemption.
The week began with the wide receivers placing a collective chip on the shoulders of their position group. Perhaps as a carryover from his days when he was the head coach at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen wants the Gators to take on an us against the world mentality. He doesn't mind playing the disrespect card, particularly when it helps to get his team focused on the task ahead. When the Gators made it out to the practice field on Monday, Tyrie Cleveland said the wide receivers “came focused and came here with a chip on our shoulder.”
The chip, it turns out, was contagious. While it began with the wide receivers, it quickly spread to the rest of the team. Almost from the moment practice began, there was noticeable intensity from every unit.
“Monday practice was intense,” Cleveland said. “We were flying around, tempo was fast, defense was running to the ball. Monday was a great practice for us.”
Mullen called it “our best Monday practice of the year” and it carried over each day, almost like a crescendo. The growing focus and intensity ensured a paybacks are hell mentality when the Gators took the field against the Commodores.
The resulting 56-0 win was the Gators' way of issuing an apology for the loss to Georgia and a statement that whoever gets in the way from here on out might get steamrolled.
“We came focused and came here with a chip on our shoulder,” Cleveland said. “I would say that we let a lot of people down last week. We wanted to show the world that we are Gator football still and we're going to play to the Gator standard.”
Cleveland's version of playing to the Gator standard was three catches for 51 yards along with what seemed to be never-ending celebrations when his fellow wide receivers did their part. On this particular day, the Gators threw for 410 yards. Kyle Trask and Emory Jones combined to throw 27 completions to 11 different receivers – six wideouts, two tight ends and three running backs. Trask threw three touchdown passes, his seventh consecutive game with at least two, and he had a career-high 363 passing yards plus he scored on a 14-yard run. Jones didn't throw any touchdown passes, but he ran for 34 yards and three touchdowns in addition to his 47 passing yards. The running game produced 150 yards, averaging 5.2 per carry.
Over on defense, the Gators limited the Commodores to 128 total yards – 51 rushing and 77 passing. A week after zero sacks and turnovers against Georgia, the Gators racked up six sacks for -43 yards, forced a fumble that was turned into an 80-yard touchdown return by Jonathan Greenard and picked off two passes, both by safety Donovan Stiner.
On third down, Florida's Achilles heel against Georgia, Vanderbilt managed to convert only three into first downs in 15 attempts.
“It was a big statement game, one of the biggest games of the season,” offered Trevon Grimes, who caught four passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. “We had to come out here and show what kind of team we are, that we're not going to back down and we're going to fight until the end.”
Let's not fool ourselves here. The opponent was Vanderbilt, not to be mistaken for a top tier team in the Southeastern Conference. The loss was the Commodores' seventh of the season and assured them of another losing record. But don't let Vandy's ineptitude overshadow what the Gators actually accomplished. In this era of college football where lenient rules favor the offense and spread attacks force defenses to set up like a picket fence to counter four- and five-wide sets with motion and lots of shifting, shootouts are fairly common even if one of the teams is a bottom feeder.
Nobody expected Vanderbilt to actually beat the Gators Saturday, but with weapons like running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Kalijah Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney – all of whom will be playing for money on Sundays next year – it wouldn't have been a shocker for the Commodores to make this a high-scoring battle. The Gators neutralized Vanderbilt's big three, holding Vaughn to 28 yards on 15 carries; Lipscomb to one reception for all of four yards and Pinkney without a single catch. Over on the offensive side of the ball, once the Gators eliminated the silly mistakes that sent them into the halftime locker room with only a 14-0 lead, Vandy was prayerless to stop the Florida attack and the game got ugly in a hurry.
The fact that Vanderbilt was dominated in every phase of the game says something about the way the Gators responded to the challenge of putting the Georgia game behind them and focusing on what's ahead. Winning the SEC East isn't completely out of the question, but that's in someone else's hands. All the Gators can do is go out next Saturday in Columbia and add Missouri's scalp to their belt. Then they will have done everything in their power to win the SEC East with two losses. As improbable as it may seem, Georgia could still lose twice which would send the Gators to Atlanta for a likely rematch with LSU. A loss to Auburn on the road next Saturday isn't out of the question for Georgia, but losing to Texas A&M in Athens the next week? That seems like a tall order and completely out of Florida's control. So, it's up to the Gators to take care of their own business to finish the regular season with 10 wins, setting up the possibility of an 11-win season in a bowl game.
Last season the Gators rebounded from back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri to win their final three regular season games, then they finished off Mullen's first season on the job with an impressive blowout of Michigan in a New Year's Six bowl (Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta) for their 10th win. This year, a three-game win streak at the end of the regular season will earn another New Year's Six bowl, this one most likely the Orange (against an ACC team) or the Cotton (against the best Group of Five team).
An 11-win season that included a second straight New Year's Six bowl is a worthy achievement and a clear signal that Dan Mullen is resurrecting the Florida football program. Where the Gators are right now is a full year ahead of schedule.