NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Only six games into the Dan Mullen era, the Florida Gators have already worked their way back to being ranked and relevant in the SEC.
Now comes the hard part.
Staying ranked and relevant.
In the SEC, it’s a week-to-week thing, so the Gators will start to find out today just how tough it can be, going against a Vanderbilt team that has shown it is capable of playing with teams that are ranked and relevant.
The Commodores nearly upset Notre Dame on the road a month ago. Last week, they gave No. 2 Georgia fits before falling in Athens, even though the final score (41-13) might not indicate it.
The Gators, coming off three consecutive emotional wins, are anticipating getting Vandy’s best shot today.
“The great challenge of the Southeastern Conference is not the individual game, it’s the game after game after game after game that you play,” Mullen said. “So, a great challenge as you come off this (win over then-No. 5 LSU).
“Playing a tough team in Vanderbilt with a very veteran quarterback, the league’s leading wide receiver. They’ve got one of the most veteran offensive lines in the league. They can hit you with explosive plays and they can a play ball-control game. Excellent defense.
“Usually this game has been pretty close in years past. So, they’re going to be a huge challenge for us as it keeps going.”
Many, including Mullen, are wondering how the Gators are going to respond today coming off the big win over LSU a week ago in a loud and electric atmosphere in The Swamp. With an 11 a.m. (local time) kickoff and a less-than-full stadium, it will be a much different environment today.
And a much different opponent. The Commodores are winless (0-2) in the SEC, both losses by one-sided scores. Vandy was blown out at home by South Carolina, 37-14, the week after putting a scare on Notre Dame.
There has been a lot of discussion around the Florida program this week about this possibly being a trap game for the Gators, a game where if they’re not focused and they don’t take the Commodores seriously, they could revert to unranked and irrelevant by Monday.
“This is a veteran (Vanderbilt ) team. We can’t take them lightly,” junior middle linebacker David Reese said. “They just got out of a dogfight with Georgia. If they don’t make mistakes in that game, they win the game. Notre Dame, if they don’t make mistakes in that game, they win the game. So, this is a team with a good defense, a veteran quarterback that we can’t take lightly.”
The quarterback is senior Kyle Shurmur, who has the arm talent and the players around him to certainly pose a serious threat to the Gators. Shurmur has thrown for 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns through six games this season. He threw three touchdown passes against the Gators last season in a 38-24 loss.
“I’ve played against him before,” Reese said. “Just knowing that he has a lot of experience, and that offensive line also does, too. But I feel like it’s nothing we can’t handle. I feel like this game is more about us and the energy we bring to their stadium.”
A week ago, the Gators drew great energy from their big (and raucous) home crowd.
Today, the energy might be generated from the threat of losing and taking a step backward after showing steady improvement every game since the loss to Kentucky.
It’s all about continuing to make progress — and remaining ranked and relevant, now that they’ve finally reached this point.
The Gators have been focusing on themselves this week.
“If you don’t take care of the little things, take care of your fundamentals, then really everything is a trap game, no matter who you’re playing,” Reese said. “If you don’t do the little things right, if you don’t come out and follow the plan to win and come out every day at practice with the mindset you have to win on Saturday, then every game is a trap game.
“This is a team that we can’t take lightly, and I feel like we understand that. Coach (Mullen) understands that, too. It’s going to be interesting, but we’re not going to take them lightly. They’ve had good games at Notre Dame, Georgia. They’re a good team.”