Plenty to prove for Cats, Gators

Each team is coming off a tougher-than-expected win

HERALD-LEADER SPORTS COLUMNISTSeptember 21, 2009 

John Clay

They'll enter this Saturday knowing just how the other one feels.

Last Saturday, Kentucky was a solid two-touchdown favorite to vanquish arch-rival Louisville, yet had to overcome a rash of turnovers and clock malfunctions and sideline mishaps to squeak past the Cards 31-27.

"We were fortunate to win," said Rich Brooks, the head Wildcat.

Last Saturday, Florida was a 30-point favorite to wipe the smirk off Lane Kiffin's face, yet had to overcome turnovers, a flu bug and a 69-year-old defensive coordinator (Monte Kiffin) to get past Tennessee 23-13.

"We're happy to win," said Urban Meyer, the head Gator.

Winning is one thing. Being expected to win is another. Being expected to win by a heaping helping of points, so that your fan base can ridicule the opposing fan base for the next 12 months, is something different all together. That amounts to the type of pressure that neither the Cats nor the Gators handled particularly well over the weekend.

"We could have played better," admitted Meyer.

You can make a strong case that once you get past their shared weekend frustration, the similarities between the Cats and Gators end.

After winning its third straight bowl game, Kentucky is trying to crack the cement ceiling of the SEC's upper echelon. After winning two of the past three BCS titles, Florida is trying to become the first repeat national champion since Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.

Yet, in their own ways, both teams will have much to prove come Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

To many, anyway, Florida exhibited cracks on Saturday. Tim Tebow failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 30 games, a streak that extended back to before the Gators' 2006 BCS title win over Ohio State. He was picked off by UT super-safety Eric Berry, and he suffered a fourth-quarter fumble on the Tennessee four-yard line as the Gators appeared ready to extend a 23-6 lead to 30-6.

On the other hand, Tebow was, for the most part, without Jeff Demps, the speedy back who was hampered by the flu. After gaining 182 yards rushing in Florida's first two games, Demps carried just four times for 31 yards on Saturday.

Plus, not every defense has Monte Kiffin has its coordinator. The long-time NFL tactician, in his first year at Tennessee, continually confused the Gators, something Tebow readily admitted to after the game. Lane Kiffin can smirk all he wants, but you have to wonder where he'd be without dear ol' Dad.

And you have to wonder where UK would be without its third-quarter defense. Thanks to a 65-yard second-half kickoff return and consecutive Kentucky turnovers, Louisville reached the red zone three straight times. All three times the Cards failed to reach the end zone. A missed field goal was sandwiched between two made field goals. That's where Kentucky won the game.

Finally, on the Cards' fourth try inside the red zone, Louisville scored to take a 20-17 lead before UK rallied not once, but twice.

"We shouldn't have let them in at all," said defensive boss Steve Brown.

Chances are, there will be plenty more red-zone opportunities come Saturday.

Chances are, Florida thinks it has something to prove this week.

Kentucky does, too.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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