Let this much be said at the outset of this week’s discussion: There have been many Vandy-Florida games in the past when visualizing a VU victory was just not a realistic thing to do. Yet, on some of those seemingly hopeless occasions, the ridiculous came agonizingly close to actually unfolding. The 1996 and 1999 games offer the greatest examples of Vandy’s persistence in the face of Florida’s force. The VU crew has been a mosquito for the Gators, usually an irritant but rarely able to take a big enough bite out of the Swamp dwellers in north central Florida.
The bad news, then, is that Vandy doesn’t figure to be able to beat Florida this Saturday in Nashville. The Gators, along with the Oklahoma Sooners over in the Big 12, are playing the best college football in America right now. Based on the question, “Who’s the hottest team in the country at this very moment?”, Florida is the only acceptable answer other than Oklahoma. It’s a big ask for Bobby Johnson’s boys to pull off the win in front of a packed house and a national ESPN2 audience.
So, if that’s the bad news, what’s the good news? This is where we return to electoral politics.
The departed Tim Russert identified the key to the 2000 election: “Florida, Florida, Florida.” The Sunshine State gave both candidates their route to the White House. This week, as many commentators are already wearing out the phrase “path to victory” in reference to John McCain’s electoral math, it can be said that Vandy also has a narrow—but real—path to victory against the Gators. A win is not to be expected, but unlike past editions of this SEC East encounter, it doesn’t seem quite so foolish to visualize the one magic scenario that can topple Tim Tebow and company.
There is one, and only one, essential course that Saturday’s game can acquire in order for the Commodores to conquer the goliath from Gainesville. Safe to say, it’s not a track meet featuring 863 total yards and 84 combined points. If Vandy wants to get all the battleground states—errrr, uhhh… key gameday situations—to fall in its favor, the Johnson Boys need to play this game in a certain way and rely on their biggest strengths. Even more precisely, Vandy needs to have the guts to—like the mosquito—irritate the bejeezus out of the juggernaut standing on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.
Vandy’s game plan needs to be simple in its conceptual development, but it will be mighty hard to execute, given the way Florida is playing on both sides of the ball. A path to a VU victory must include the following basic components: ball control, zero turnovers in important situations, a huge return game from D.J. Moore, and an ability to pound the living daylights out of Tim Tebow. All four of those items must emerge Saturday night for Vandy to have a realistic chance of winning. The above statement represents a four-point plan for a stunning upset and a share of the SEC East lead.
Yes, it actually is possible to visualize a scenario in which that focal foursome rises to the forefront. But since the Gators are completely dismantling and dismembering opponents, left and right, those keys to success demand a little more unpacking.
In order to attain ball control—the first of the four keys—Vandy has to emphasize two priorities in particular: quarterback scrambling, and play-calling wisdom. If you want to keep Tebow and his terrorizing skill position studs off the field, you need to have quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs. This is true for a very simple reason: if you can run for first downs instead of having to throw for them, more clock time will melt off the Vanderbilt Stadium scoreboard. VU will need to gain first downs with two or three clock-chewing plays, instead of two incompletions followed by an 11-yard pass on 3rd and 10. It’s not just about getting first downs; it’s how Vandy gets them. In 2nd and 2 situations—which offensive coordinator Ted Cain hopes to get on Saturday—the Dores must patiently take the first down and drain clock, instead of taking shots downfield.
Yes, Vandy will have to take chances at some point, but not in the early going. Moreover, Vandy and Cain need to be aggressive with their play calling only when Florida is expecting a more conservative approach. Second down—usually considered a time when an offense can take chances—needs to be a no-frills down for VU’s offense. Instead, a 4th and 1 situation—when the Gators are stacking the box—is the time when Cain should dial up a special play that works against tendency and throws Florida’s defense off balance.
Next, a word on the need to eliminate key turnovers. This might seem like an obvious point, but it merits a brief explanation. Teams—even huge underdogs—can survive some turnovers, just not devastating ones. If you face 3rd and 15 at your own 40, and you throw a long downfield pass that gets intercepted inside your opponent’s 25, without a return, that’s not a devastating turnover. Giving up the football is a lot like real estate: location, location, location. If you love college football enough to at least read box scores or game summaries in conferences such as the Pac-10, you might have noticed that Cal needed only nine total yards to score two of its three touchdowns against Oregon on Nov. 1. The Bears turned the ball over five times and missed two field goals, but since the Ducks gave up the pill inside their own 7 on two separate occasions, Cal was still able to win. The location of that game’s many turnovers affected the outcome more than anything else.
That illustration helps define the challenge in front of Vandy. Whoever plays quarterback for the Commodores—and we might very well see both Mackenzi Adams and Chris Nickson under center on Saturday—simply has to be able to value the ball anywhere inside Florida’s 40 yard line on plays not involving a fourth down or a third-and-long. Adams threw away the Duke game on a second down play from the Blue Devil 40. That kind of situational ignorance—if perpetuated against the Gators—will lead to a lopsided loss.
The third key—D.J. Moore—speaks for itself. The only thing to add here is that Bobby Johnson might want to consider devising an elaborate return play involving a long, cross-field lateral, a fake reverse, or some other return wrinkle to develop a big play. Film study needs to unearth some weaknesses in a fast and, perhaps, over-pursuing Gator coverage team.
The fourth key in VU’s “path to victory” plan is, simply, getting to Tebow. That’s not a complicated point, but it bears mentioning that Florida throttled Georgia because the Gators hit Matthew Stafford more than UGA hammered Mr. Heisman. In the 2007 edition of the Florida-Georgia game, it was Tebow who got clobbered, while Stafford remained comparatively untouched. If Vandy is to win this game, the Dores need to slam Tebow, racking up hard hits and making Florida’s fearless leader flinch on both his throws and between-the-tackles runs. With big, bruising blows leveled on the defensive side of the ball, Vandy—if it can stay close—might be able to produce a game-changing turnover in the fourth quarter that tips the scales for the home team.
So there you have it, a-Dore-ers of the Johnson Boys. Vandy’s path to victory—like John McCain’s—can only acquire one basic trajectory. Everything has to break right for the Commodores to turn this tough test into a king-sized conquest. Fresh off a bye week, and with past struggles emptied from their renewed minds, the boys in black need to execute their plan to perfection. If they do, we might be up late in the SEC, with the Tim Russert whiteboard saying, “Vandy, Vandy, Vandy.”