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Kentucky falls to Florida. How costly will that be for the Wildcats?

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Game day: Kentucky vs. Florida

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Kentucky’s 29-21 loss to Florida snapped a streak of back-to-back seasons in which the Wildcats opened Southeastern Conference play with a victory. It also was UK’s 32nd loss to Florida in the last 33 seasons.

Let’s look at the significance of Saturday’s victory beyond the scoreboard, and why it might not be as bad as it seems in the moment.

Bowl eligibility

Suffering a loss is never fun, but plenty of wins remain within reach for the Wildcats this season. Bowl eligibility is more than attainable — it should be expected.

UK’s floor, to many, coming into this season was 6-6 — four wins against non-conference opponents and victories over Arkansas and Vanderbilt, the only teams picked to finish worse in the SEC than UK. As far as meeting the bare minimum, the Wildcats are one-third of the way there.

Preseason projections were made before Tennessee suffered one of its program’s most embarrassing defeats, South Carolina stubbed its toe against North Carolina and Missouri lost a shootout at Wyoming. All of that happened in week one, when UK took care of business against Toledo, a preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.

There’s room for the Cats to slip themselves, and coming off a loss as they prepare for their first road trip isn’t ideal, but they’ve so far met the expectations of most in 2019. That’s more than most teams in the SEC East Division can say.

A loss to Florida seemingly puts a finish any higher than third in the East further out of reach than it was before Saturday, but if UK can keep itself in front of other programs it pushed past last season and the Gators trip up somewhere, it could find itself again in the championship mix down the stretch.

Top 10 wins are rare

UK hasn’t defeated a team ranked inside the Associated Press top 10 since 2010, when the Wildcats edged No. 10 South Carolina, 31-28, in Joker Phillips’ first season leading the program.

The Cats under Mark Stoops have beaten a few opponents ranked by the AP — five total, three last year — but are now 0-8 against top-10 squads through the first three games of Stoops’ seventh season..

Florida, ranked ninth in this week’s AP poll, would have been the highest-ranked opponent Kentucky defeated since toppling No. 1 LSU, 43-37, in triple overtime in 2007. It is the 10th straight opponent ranked in the top 10 to whom UK has lost.

Through Saturday the only other team on UK’s schedule ranked in the AP poll is No. 3 Georgia. Mississippi State, to whom UK travels next Saturday, has received votes in previous weeks but suffered a 31-24 loss to Kansas State at home earlier on Saturday.

RIP, Florida anxiety

Many already were at ease coming into this year’s matchup following Kentucky’s victory down south last season, which snapped one of college football’s worst losing streaks. The Gators have reclaimed their throne, but there’s really no reason for any member of the Big Blue Nation to be “scared” of Florida anymore.

Fans should respect Florida — it’s a three-time national champion with a fertile recruiting base, a proven head coach and facilities envied by all but a handful of teams around the nation. But even if Florida wins next year, and the year after, and the year after, as long as those hypothetical losses stay within a respectable margin — as all but two games have with Stoops in charge — then fans should not fear the Gators for the foreseeable future.

Kentucky has closed the gap between itself and Florida when it comes to recruiting. The Gators ranked ninth overall in 247Sports’ ratings for the 2019 class while UK came in at No. 34; on its face that seems like quite a disparity but it’s much-improved from 2012, when the same rankings had Florida at No. 3 and UK at No. 50.

With plenty to be decided on the recruiting battle grounds, Florida sits at No. 9 overall with the 2020 class. Kentucky? It’s No. 23 overall.

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.