Florida football: 5 storylines to watch for Gators' game at Vanderbilt

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports
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The Florida Gators will look to continue their late-season charge under first-year coach Billy Napier in another road test Saturday at Vanderbilt (noon ET, SEC Network).

The Gators (6-4, 3-4 SEC) have won two straight and can wrap up the year with a .500 record in conference play if they can handle the Commodores (4-6, 1-5 SEC).

"This team has worked extremely hard and is starting to believe a little bit," Napier said.

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Florida will seek its first three-game win streak since winning five in a row from Oct. 31-Dec. 5 2020.

“The last couple weeks of practice, the energy has been through the roof," Florida safety Rashad Torrence II. "I feel like as a team we’ve all bought in more and understood that we all have a role on the team and you can’t do another person’s role. So just buying into your own role makes the team better.”

Here are five storylines to watch for Saturday's game between the Gators and Commodores.

Preparing for two QBs

Florida doesn't know whether incumbent starter A.J. Swann or backup Mike Wright will start at quarterback for the Commodores. Swann did not play against Kentucky and Wright led Vanderbilt to an upset over the No. 24 Wildcats, passing for 184 yards and one TD and rushing for 123 and 1 TD.

“They’ve played both players all year, so it’s a Catch-22 either way," Napier said. "I certainly understand that. We anticipate both players playing. We’ll plan accordingly and then adjust as the game sees fit. But it has been a situation where the guy that started last year (Wright) has played with somewhat of a role all season.”

Of the two, Wright is more the dual threat with 454 yards rushing and 5 rushing TDs on the season.

"With running quarterbacks, we try our best to rush thicker, run up the field," Florida defensive lineman Gervon Dexter Sr. said. "We try to contain them. We try our best to rush four, things like that. Like I say, the biggest thing is not running past him, containing him in the pocket, and getting him when we get to him."

QB Anthony Richardson's accuracy

Richardson is coming off a game in which he completed 11 of 23 passes for 2 touchdowns against South Carolina. The run game was strong enough to lead the Gators to the win.

Vanderbilt's defense is better against the run than against the pass, so this may be a game where Richardson will need to throw the ball more consistently to move the chains. Richardson's completion percentage of 55 percent is second lowest among SEC starting quarterbacks, ahead of only Auburn's Robby Ashford (50 percent).

"Being accurate is physical and mental, if that makes sense," Napier said. "I think there's so much that happens in a very small amount of time relative to declaring where I'm going with the ball from the ground up, everything being synchronized, starting between the ears, and then fundamentally from the feet all the way to the ball coming out of your hand."

Napier said the goal each week is for Richardson to finish the game with a quarterback rating of 145 or higher. He's hit that goal twice this season, against Eastern Washington (327.6) and Tennessee (151.5) and was close against Texas A&M (144.6). Overall, Richardson's quarterback rating on the season is 127.2.

Third-down defense improvement

Florida has made noticeable strides in getting teams off the field on third down during its current two-game win streak. The Gators held Texas A&M and South Carolina to a combined 7-for-24 on third-down tries.

The Gators are looking for that trend to continue against the Commodores as players appear more comfortable executing first-year defensive coordinator Patrick Toney's scheme.

"We're just finally buying in and trusting to what Coach PT is calling, and we're all just trying to do our job a lot better," Dexter said. "We finally, I think like once you see it work once, it's like OK, it works."

Through the first eight games of the season, Florida's third-down defense hovered around 50 percent. Napier said the improvement started during the bye week preparing for Georgia.

"We tweaked a few things conceptually, created a few more variables as a staff," Napier said. "Then certainly I think just the overall culture on defense I think has improvement, the execution, the play speed." 

Handling the cold, early start

The forecast for Florida's late-morning kickoff against Vanderbilt calls for temperatures ranging from 40-45 degrees with 11 mph winds and a three percent chance of rain. Napier has handed down an edict to his players not to talk about the weather.

"We don't control the weather, so we'll do our best in regards to that," Napier said. "Can't have an opinion on it because we don't control it. We'll show up and play. Whatever the conditions are, they are."

For the second time in three weeks, Florida will have a morning kickoff local time. Two weeks ago, against Texas A&M, Florida came out flat early in an 11 a.m. start, falling behind 24-20 at halftime before rallying for an eventual 41-24 win.

"We quality controlled that trip," Napier said. "We are going to do a few things differently, from a time allocation standpoint, what we do - I think it's important in the beginning of the week. I think the sleep habits of the players and staff throughout the week will be important."

Red-zone execution

Florida has gone 10 of 15 in scoring opportunities in the red zone over the last two games. It's an area the Gators will look to improve Saturday. Procedural penalties on the offensive line have thwarted some red-zone scoring chances. 

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