John Clay

Unranked and starting a new QB, Kentucky can show its stuff against Florida

The Florida Gators are a 7.5-point favorite over the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night at Kroger Field, which sounds right considering (a) Florida is No. 9 while UK remains unranked in the AP poll, (b) Kentucky’s quarterback will be making his first SEC start and (c) the Gators have handled the Cats 31 of the last 32 years.

The aberration was last year, of course. Kentucky owns a one-game series win streak thanks to the cathartic 27-16 September triumph in The Swamp. Even that UK keepsake might work in the Gators’ favor, however. Motivation will be on Florida’s mind when it touches down in the Bluegrass.

Still, all that said, Saturday should tell us much about this 2019 Kentucky football team and about Mark Stoops’ program, one fresh off a historic 10-win season and Citrus Bowl victory.

UK’s preseason storyline involved all the good players no longer around. And now there’s one more in quarterback Terry Wilson, the second-year starter who tore the patellar tendon in his left knee during the 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan. Enter his understudy, Sawyer Smith, grad transfer from Troy.

The good news is Smith has plenty of experience. Replacing an injured starter — sound familiar? — he played six games and was MVP of Troy’s 42-32 Dollar General Bowl win over Buffalo. The bad news is Saturday will be his first taste of SEC competition. The last quarterback to make his first UK start against a top-10 team? Answer: Tim Couch at Florida in 1996. The result: Florida romped 65-0.

That was Bill Curry’s seventh and final year as UK coach. This is Stoops’ seventh with the promise of plenty more. Curry went 26-52. Stoops is 38-39. Stoops’ recruiting has been much better than Curry ever hoped. This team has more depth at more spots than any Kentucky team in recent memory, the rub being a good deal of the talent is wet behind the ears.

That’s especially true of Kentucky’s secondary, a key to Saturday night’s outcome. Against UK in 2018, Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks flopped. He completed a mere 17 of his 38 passes with two touchdowns and an interception. As the calendar progressed, however, Franks sharpened from head coach Dan Mullen’s teachings. (Among Mullen’s former pupils: Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott.) Over the final four games, Franks completed 64.9 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and zero picks. Through two games this year, Franks has hit on 67.9 percent of his throws.

“Feleipe looks very, very good,” Stoops said Monday. “He looks very comfortable. Second year, starting with Dan being there, and he has a big arm, that’s for sure.”

Franks enjoys a treasure trove of targets. Never mind that Kadarius Toney, UF’s best breakaway threat, is out with a shoulder injury. Josh Hammond, Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes and Tyrie Cleveland have all been known to give secondaries the shakes. Jefferson already has a 69-yard catch this season; Hammond a 65-yard reception. Remember, Florida’s last Lexington visit, UK famously saw a couple of uncovered receivers lead to the Gators’ 28-27 win.

That’s the other thing here: Unlike a decade or two (or three) ago, Kentucky knows it can play with Florida. Throw out the Gators’ 45-7 trouncing of UK in 2017 and the aggregate Stoops era score is Florida 118, Kentucky 100. Toss 2017 plus Florida’s 24-7 win Stoops’ first year and it’s Florida 94, Kentucky 93.

“They’ll respond,” said Stoops on Monday, speaking of the team’s mood after the Wilson injury. “They’ll walk through the building and be confident and ready to go.”

Stoops also admitted no one is going to feel sorry for the Cats. In a big-boy league, you still have to line up against the big boys and play. Florida is a big, fast boy. If a young Kentucky team starting its backup quarterback can hang with the Gators, then the Cats will show they are of big boy material, too.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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