UK Football

John Clay: Forget the 28 losses, 3 is the number UK football covets

Never mind that 28-game losing streak. Never mind that Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida in football since Jerry Claiborne was coach. Never mind that one week after a memorable celebration in their locker room in Columbia after a road-streak snapping win at South Carolina, these Cats could include all of Commonwealth Stadium in the Saturday night dance party.

This Kentucky-Florida game is bigger than that.

"We want to be 3-0," Cats quarterback Patrick Towles said this week.

Now that's big. Real big. Flip the record book back 50 years (or so) and you will find that Kentucky has never suffered a losing season after starting 3-0. There have been lots of losing seasons. And not many 3-0s.

Charlie Bradshaw's 1964 team won its first three games and finished 5-5, not bad for the time. Claiborne's 1983 edition started 3-0 and reached the Hall of Fame Bowl. His 1984 team started 3-0 and won the Hall of Fame Bowl. Hal Mumme's 1998 team started 3-0 and played in the Outback Bowl. Guy Morriss's 2002 team started 3-0 and finished 7-5.

Kentucky has enjoyed three 3-0 takeoffs in the past decade. Rich Brooks' 2007 and 2008 teams ripped off three W's on the way to earning Music City Bowl (2007) and Liberty Bowl (2008) gift bags. Joker Phillips' 2010 team, his first, opened 3-0 and appeared — "played" might be a stretch — in the BBVA Compass Bowl. That remains the occasion of Kentucky's last bowl game.

So how does Kentucky get to 3-0? It won't be easy. For all the Bluegrass optimism, Florida is favored. The Gators are a team in transition with a new coach and a murky quarterback situation, but they are still the Gators. They have athletes. Lots and lots of athletes.

They figure to be fired up, too. New coach Jim McElwain scorched the Gators during — ask Kelvin Taylor — and after his team's 31-24 win over East Carolina last week. Twelve penalties will bring that out of a coach. McElwain called the effort "embarrassing." He said Florida "didn't deserve to win."

Florida's run defense is playing winning football. It is No. 3 nationally in that category, allowing 1.16 yards per attempt. That's stout. If you're guessing that sack yardage has distorted those numbers, you'd be guessing wrong. Take out Florida's three sacks last Saturday, and East Carolina gained all of nine yards on 19 carries. Ouch.

Meanwhile, Shannon Dawson's first-half play-calling in Columbia last Saturday was a thing of beauty. UK's new offensive coordinator had South Carolina's defense completely off balance. Dawson called 24 runs and 18 passes. Kentucky gained 156 yards rushing, 151 yards passing. Balance is beautiful.

Boom Williams has been pretty good, too. UK's sophomore running back has rushed for 100 yards or more in three straight games, and he's the first Cat to do that since Derrick Locke in 2010. Williams is second nationally in yards per carry at 10.08. Navy's Chris Swain is averaging 11.45 yards per carry, but he has played just one game. Boom has carried the football 24 times; Swain just 11.

To finally crack the Florida code, Kentucky has to be able to run the ball at least well enough to keep the Gators' pass defense honest. Vernon Hargreaves, if healthy, might be the best cornerback in the nation. Yes, Kentucky hit the Gators for 369 passing yards last season but, let's be honest, the Cats had some fortunate throws that night.

Plenty of "experts" think Kentucky's good fortune will continue. Normally, I'm suspicious of sexy picks. Many times the horse that the "wise guys" tout on Churchill Downs' backside during Kentucky Derby week runs up the track on Derby Day. The little-known team that "smart guys" recommend on Selection Sunday is often the team headed home after the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Smart/popular picks can often end up looking dumb.

This is the exception that proves the rule, however. Beating Florida for the first time since 1986 would be big. Starting 3-0, however, would be bigger. Be ready to dance.