Mark Story

UK football will never be respected in SEC until it ends Florida losing streak

Kentucky wide receiver Garrett Johnson celebrated one of his two touchdown catches in Kentucky’s 36-30 triple-overtime loss at Flordia in 2014. When the Gators visit Kroger Field Saturday night, the senior from Winter Garden, Fla., has one more chance to help UK end its embarrassing 30-year losing streak to Florida.
Kentucky wide receiver Garrett Johnson celebrated one of his two touchdown catches in Kentucky’s 36-30 triple-overtime loss at Flordia in 2014. When the Gators visit Kroger Field Saturday night, the senior from Winter Garden, Fla., has one more chance to help UK end its embarrassing 30-year losing streak to Florida. cbertram@herald-leader.com

After Kentucky’s fourth straight victory over South Carolina on Saturday night, UK Coach Mark Stoops said the Wildcats felt disrespected by the pregame, near-consensus among sports pundits that the Gamecocks were going to win the game.

(Full disclosure: I was among the opinion writers who picked South Carolina over Kentucky).

“Quite honestly, we were tired of it,” Stoops said after UK’s 23-13 win in Columbia.

For Stoops and UK, the door to some meaningful college football respect swings wide open Saturday night at 7:30 when No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) brings its 30-game winning streak against Kentucky (3-0, 1-0) to Kroger Field.

This qualifies more as self-evident truth than any kind of hot take, but for Kentucky to ever gain any street cred in SEC football circles, it has to become more competitive against the traditionally strongest programs in the SEC East — especially Florida.

These dismal numbers are seared into the souls of The Long Suffering UK Football Fan.

Kentucky has lost 24 of its last 28 games against Georgia.

UK has fallen 31 of the last 32 times it has played Tennessee.

The Wildcats have gone more than three decades — Nov. 15, 1986, to be exact — since besting a Florida football team.

This is as simple as it gets: Changing long-established perceptions of UK as an SEC football afterthought require Kentucky breakthroughs against the SEC East’s traditional big three.

“It’s very important. It’s very important,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference of improved results against the historic SEC East big boys. “There’s always the steps that we need to take to push forward. We don’t dodge those. We embrace those challenges.”

There’s a school of thought that Kentucky football can never substantially climb the SEC ladder because the Wildcats will never “pass” Florida, Georgia and Tennessee — three programs with inherent advantages UK can’t match.

I’ve never bought that because Kentucky doesn’t have to “pass” those three programs to climb. It just has to become more competitive.

Think about this: Over the next 30 years, if UK could beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee three times each every decade, that would be a huge upgrade over the performance of the three prior decades.

The positive impact on Kentucky football of achieving that goal — 3-7 every 10 years against UF, UT and UGa. — would be immense.

In the short term, snapping the 30-game losing streak against Florida is the single best thing UK could do to alter negative views of Wildcats football.

From a perception standpoint, Kentucky does not want to enter the top three among college football’s all-time losers in an uninterrupted series. Ahead on that list are Kansas State to Oklahoma (32 straight from 1937-68), Kansas to Nebraska (36, 1969-2004) and Navy to Notre Dame (43, 1964-2006).

Over three decades, UK has had its chances to break free from the Gators’ death roll. Of the 30 straight losses to Florida, eight have been by single digits.

Kentucky lost in 1993, 24-20, in a game in which it intercepted seven Florida passes. UK lost in 2002, 41-34, in a game in which it had a player, Derek Abney, return both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.

The Wildcats were defeated in 2003, 24-21, when they led the Gators 21-3 entering the fourth quarter. Kentucky was defeated in 2014, 36-30, when it took Florida to three overtimes in The Swamp.

Stoops is responsible for only four of the 30 straight losses to the Gators. Yet the UK coach says he feels the pain of Kentucky fans who have endured so much futility for so long at the hands of Florida.

“I take it personally. I do. I care,” Stoops said. “I care about our fan base, I do care about the history, even if I wasn’t here. I want to make our people happy and supportive of our team.”

For Kentucky, victory over Florida, at long, long last, would be spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Saturday

No. 20 Florida at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

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