Florida seemed to turn a corner in the second half against Texas A&M. The Gators cruised past the Aggies after a strong second-half display and followed it up by blowing out South Carolina 38-6 on Senior Day.
All that momentum came to a screeching halt in Nashville.
The Vanderbilt Commodores, fresh off their first Southeastern Conference win since before the COVID-19 pandemic, upset Florida 31-24. The Gators played a sloppy, disjointed game and fell to Clark Lea’s Commodores in one of the most surprising results of the season.
Florida didn’t play like the team that beat Texas A&M and South Carolina. UF committed a season-high seven penalties for 80 yards and turned the ball over twice for the first time since Oct. 8 against Missouri.
The Gators also dropped several passes and fumbled a punt that was recovered by Vanderbilt for a touchdown.
In addition to unforced mental errors, Florida’s running game disappeared. After rushing for nearly 400 yards against the Gamecocks, UF managed 45 yards against the Commodores, a team that entered the game allowing the fifth-most rushing yards per game in the SEC.
The mistakes and lack of a ground game sunk Florida against Vanderbilt and put a stain on Napier’s debut season in the Swamp.
“There was a lot of Florida beating Florida out there today, and that’s my job, is to have the players ready to play,” Napier said postgame. “We did not do that today.”
Quarterback Anthony Richardson tried to will the Gators to a late victory. The redshirt sophomore finished with 400 passing yards and three touchdowns, including two to redshirt freshman Daejon Reynolds, who saw the first significant playing time of his career in Nashville.
“We lost, so I could have done a number of things better,” Richardson said postgame. “Made some better reads, better checks for us. Or even been a better leader. [I] just got to work, that's all.”
The Gators also battled injuries against Vanderbilt, especially at wide receiver. Redshirt sophomore Xzavier Henderson didn’t play Saturday, and his replacement redshirt freshman Marcus Burke went down injured. Junior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, who leads Florida in receiving touchdowns, also went down with an early injury.
“It’s definitely tough to lose those guys,” Richardson said. “Those guys know they want to play, know they want to contribute to the team.”
With just a rivalry showdown against Florida State to play, Napier’s first season at Florida is nearing its conclusion. The Gators’ loss in Nashville served as another reminder of how far the team has to go to return to the precipice of the SEC and college football.
The Gators finished the season with a 3-5 conference record, one game better than the 2-6 mark Florida reached in Dan Mullen’s final season last year.
It’s one step forward and one step back this season for Florida. The Gators two best wins, against No. 7 Utah and South Carolina, were immediately followed by losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt respectively.
“There’s lots of things that this can teach us,” Napier said. “Ultimately, that’s what’s important here — that we learn from the experience. I think our group is well-versed on what winning football looks like. We did not do what is required to win today.”
Florida will have the chance to end a frustrating season on a high note when it travels to Tallahassee to face Florida State. The Seminoles are ranked 16th in the Associated Press top 25 and are in the midst of their best season since 2016.
FSU head coach Mike Norvell’s team is 8-3 with four straight dominant victories heading into its rivalry clash against the Gators on Black Friday. If Florida can win its fourth-straight against Florida State — especially against a ranked Seminoles team — it’d be an ideal cap to the Gators’ season.
The ESPN Football Power Index favors the Seminoles, giving FSU a 76.9% chance to win as of Nov. 20.
Kickoff from Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee is set for Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ABC.
Contact Topher Adams at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.
Topher Adams is a third-year journalism major and the football beat reporter for The Alligator. He also covered Florida lacrosse for the paper and loves watching college football and MLS soccer.