No. 14 Florida ready to put clamps on Vanderbilt

Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

But the last thing that coach Dan Mullen wants is for the No. 14 Gators to feel overconfident heading into Saturday’s matchup at reeling Vanderbilt.

Florida (5-1, 3-1 SEC) is coming off its fourth straight victory, knocking off LSU 27-19 in a charged atmosphere at The Swamp. Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-2 SEC) is still seeking its first conference win, coming off a 41-13 loss at No. 2 Georgia

“I’ve played in games up there,” said Mullen, the former Mississippi State coach.

“It’s going to be a different atmosphere than what we’ve seen. It doesn’t have to affect our performance on the field and how we play and how we execute and how we practice all week. It’s not going to affect that.

“For our guys to have any thought except for how hard I can go on the next play would be us taking a step backward as a team. That has to be the focus of everybody within the program.”

Vanderbilt trailed Georgia 7-3 midway through the second quarter, but the Bulldogs tacked on two more touchdowns, while the Commodores couldn’t covert a key fourth-and-1 at the Georgia 14. Despite gaining 230 first-half yards against a talented defense, Vanderbilt trailed 21-6. It got worse from there.

“We’re so close,” Commodores starting offensive lineman Bruno Reagan said. “We’re unbelievably close. It’s just about playing better. We’re right there. We saw that in the UGA game. We were driving up and down the field against a really good team.”

Florida is mostly getting it done with defense. The Gators are third nationally in passing efficiency defense (96.04 rating), eighth in scoring defense (14.8 points allowed per game) and 19th in total defense (321.0 yards per game).

Defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is 28th on the Big Board of senior analyst Rob Rang. Linebacker Vosean Joseph is the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week after recording 14 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, against LSU.

Defensive lineman Jachai Polite has six sacks and four forced fumbles. And defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga is flourishing as an edge rusher in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme with 7.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks.

Those guys and more — Florida leads the SEC with 20 sacks — will be taking aim at Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who is 32 of 66 in two SEC games this season. In between games against South Carolina and Georgia, he was intercepted twice in a narrow 31-27 over FCS opponent Tennessee State.

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason suggested that running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and his 6.8 yards per carry could get more time this week. Vaughn has only 65 carries in six games, but Tuesday, Mason referred to him as the “bell cow” among the team’s runners.

“(The) best players are going to play,” Mason said. “Other guys are going to get their touches intermittently. What we have to do is make sure we get the ball to our best players.”

Florida starting quarterback Feleipe Franks has already shown he can handle hostile road environments this season, leading the Gators to back-to-back wins at Tennessee and Mississippi State in late September.

Franks, a redshirt sophomore, completed 12 of 27 passes for 161 yards with one touchdown and one interception against LSU. With Florida down 19-14, Franks led the Gators on a nine-play, 75-yard TD drive early in the fourth quarter that allowed the Gators to regain the lead.

“The biggest thing is to not let our improvement that we keep making slip up,” Florida junior receiver Josh Hammond said. “We’ve got to continue to get better, get better, get better and let that propel us into the game on Saturday.”

Florida might be able to find success on the ground as Vanderbilt has allowed 5.9 yards per rush in its past 10 SEC games. The Gators have split most of their backfield reps between Jordan Scarlett (54 carries, 268 yards, two TDs) and Lamical Perine (46-255-2).

Vanderbilt is expected to get back outside linebacker Charles Wright, who missed last week with an undisclosed injury. He had nine sacks last season.