During SEC Football Media Days in July, veteran scribe Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette pointed out to Mark Stoops that Kentucky had not beaten Florida in back-to-back seasons since the yesteryear of 1976-77.
The Kentucky coach responded with mock exasperation — “Oh come on now,” Stoops said — saying he deserved some love after the Cats snapped a 31-game losing streak to the Gators a year ago. Stoops then switched the subject to how he had just played golf with John Daly, a huge Arkansas fan.
Anyway, two months later, here we are. No, not Stoops vs. Holt Part 2. It’s Kentucky vs. Florida. Saturday night at Sweatbox, er, Kroger Field. UK is a 7.5-point underdog. Yeah, so. The Cats were a 13-point dog last year in The Swamp. Final from Gainesville: Kentucky 27, Florida 16.
A Kentucky win won’t be easy, of course. UK quarterback Terry Wilson, a difference-maker in the 2018 game, is out for the season. His replacement, grad transfer Sawyer Smith, is making his first start against SEC competition. Florida is ranked No. 9. Kentucky is unranked.
Still, as we said, this is a Kentucky team capable of extending its new-found win streak. To do that, however, Stoops’ troops must do certain things. Here are five:
1. Protect Smith. Led by ends Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, Florida has a Category 5 pass rush. Through two games, the Gators lead the nation in sacks with 15. (Maryland is second with 12.) Greenard is a grad transfer from Louisville. Zuniga must think he’s Josh Allen. He has three sacks already.
You may think we are pointing a finger at the UK offensive line, and we are, but don’t forget its young running backs. Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham breathes to blitz. UK’s backs will be responsible for picking up those blitzes. How have they done so far? Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s assigned grade: C.
2. Be efficient on first down. Third-and-long situations are Grantham’s dream and Gran’s nightmare. The best way to avoid third-and-long is to master first-and-10. Last year, UK gained 4-or-more yards on first-and-10 a total of 12 of its first 18 opportunities. As a result, just four times all night did the Cats face anything longer than third-and-6. UK ended up 9-of-13 on third down and celebrated all the way back to Lexington. Said Gran on Tuesday, “We have to stay out of third-and-long.”
3. Limit big plays. Florida’s roster oozes speed. True, home run hitter Kadarius Toney is out with an injured shoulder, but Florida has plenty more fleet feet. In its sloppy 24-20 win over Miami, the Gators had completions of 65 and 66 yards. In its 45-0 rout of UT Martin, the Gators completed passes of 35 and 69 yards to go with a 41-yard run.
4. Affect Feleipe Franks. That’s the trendy grid term these days: Affect the quarterback. You don’t have to sack him, but you do have to him move him, hurry him, make him uncomfortable. Franks has a cannon for an arm. He can make the throws. He can also throw in some head-scratchers, i.e. the inexplicable late pick he threw from his own 36-yard line that nearly let Miami off the hook. As important as it will be to control Florida’s pass rush, Kentucky must generate one of its own. UK’s young secondary would appreciate the help.
5. Protect the football. In Gainesville last season, the Cats committed two first-half turnovers — a Wilson fumble followed by a Wilson interception just outside the red zone — and trailed 10-7 at the break. The Cats held on to the ball the second half and won. This year, Lynn Bowden and Chris Rodriguez fumbled the ball away the first week. A.J. Rose lost the ball at Eastern Michigan’s 1-yard line the second week. That can’t happen this third week. Said Gran, “As Coach Stoops says, the ball is the program.”
No. 9 Florida at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.