Florida’s off to a 2-0 start in my 2014 projections, having blown past non conference patsies Idaho and Eastern Michigan. The failures of 2013 will be a distant memory at this point of the season with the Gators developing some confidence in what essentially amounts to two preseason games. Kentucky figures to be no different, though they may put up a little bit more of a fight than Florida’s first two opponents.
Or they may not.
2013: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
Last Meeting (2013): Florida 24, Kentucky 7
All Time Series: Florida 47, Kentucky 17
Coach: Mark Stoops, 2nd year (2-10)
Who Are You?
The Kentucky Wildcats have had nightmares about the Florida Gators for as long as the current players have been alive. Florida has won 27 in a row against UK, which happens to be the longest active winning streak any one team has over another team in college football. Most of the scores are ridiculous, too. Last year’s 24-7 win looked was, relatively speaking, a nail biter; Florida had won the previous five games against the Cats by a total of 202 points. So it’s no exaggeration to say that Florida has completely and utterly dominated Kentucky on the football field in recent years.
Enter former Arizona and Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. In his maiden voyage at Kentucky, the Wildcats’ results were very similar to what they had been before his arrival- bad. To Stoops’ credit, Kentucky was competitive in most early games, including against Louisville, Florida and South Carolina. As the losses piled up, despair set in and Kentucky began getting walloped weekly. But there was certainly some promise early in the season for the Cats.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, they have to start their SEC season in the Swamp, where they haven’t won since the infamous 0-10-1 debacle of 1979.
Returning starters: 9
Part of Stoops’ plan to restore Kentucky to glory was to bring in Neal Brown from Texas Tech to install the “Air Raid” offense, a pass happy attack that features a lot of four receiver sets out of shotgun. In his three years at TTU, Brown directed a top 10 offense in each year. The problem with it in Kentucky’s case was that their offensive line was not only outnumbered, but was really bad to begin with. Against strong front sevens like Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Missouri, it showed.
So now Brown and co. are going to roll it out again for a second year, and this time he’ll have some experienced players to run it with. QB Patrick Towles looked very good in Kentucky’s spring game, and figures to head into summer practices with the lead in a very tight battle for that position. Whoever wins the QB job will benefit from a strong playmaking corps around him. Kentucky returns their top five receivers from a year ago, including Javess Blue (586 receiving yards), Ryan Timmons (338) and Jeff Badet (285). On the ground, Kentucky has a decent option to go to in Jojo Kemp, who did really well in the limited role that the Air Raid allows last year, falling just shy of 500 yards… on 100 carries. Rounding out the offense is what should be a somewhat stronger offensive line that returns four of five starters.
Remember, though, these guys all return from a team that finished 109th out of 128 FBS teams in offensive production. The Wildcats are no longer wide eyed greenhorns, but Florida will be their first test of the year after two patsies.
Offensive grade: C-
Brown had excellent success with this same offense at Texas Tech… but this is Kentucky, who hasn’t had a top 75 offense since Andre Woodson graduated in 2007. With almost all the starters returning, the offense may eventually find its rhythm and may even improve leaps and bounds after this game, but as of right now, I can’t believe the offense will give Florida too much trouble.
Returning starters: 8
While there’s hope that the offense will improve, there is some definite proof that the defense should under coordinator DJ Elliot. Well, the closest thing to proof you can have in the offseason (and at Kentucky), anyway. Under Stoops’ leadership, the defenses at Arizona and Florida State improved noticeably in his second season at each school.
Let’s start up front, where the Wildcats ‘ entire season could hinge. Kentucky employs two highly underrated defensive ends in Bud Dupree and ZaDarious Smith. Last year, the pair combined for 13 sacks. They should lead what figures to be a much improved front seven. The only departing starter from that front seven is Avery Williamson at middle linebacker, and it will hurt. Converted defensive back Josh Forrest, who recorded Kentucky’s lone interception last year, figures to replace him, and he brings the type of athleticism that Stoops loves to have at all 11 positions.
The secondary could be what holds this defense back. As I mentioned, Kentucky picked off just one pass last year, a lazy screen pass by Tyler Murphy that Forrest undercut Matt Jones for and nearly scored on. They’re going to need a lot more production out of their backfield than that if they want to take the sort of giant step forward that Stoops’ teams at Arizona and FSU took. They will get JD Harmon back, who missed all of last year due to academic issues, and add JUCO safety AJ Stamps. But there are lots of other question marks back there heading into summer practices.
Defensive grade: C
Returning most of their starters will help in terms of experience, and Mark Stoops is as good a defensive coach as they come. But I’m not sure this defense is ready to win them some close games in the SEC just yet.
Florida Key: Offense
Kentucky’s weakness is in the secondary. Therefore, once Florida’s gotten into a rhythm on offense, the time will come to unleash Jeff Driskel in full throttle. Warm him up with some easy screen passes to give him some confidence, and then set him free. He’s going to need to make lots of plays against Alabama, so Kurt Roper needs to take off the training wheels and let Driskel play football. Of course Florida’s going to need to maintain some balance on offense, and get Kelvin Taylor his fair share of carries to keep Kentucky honest and Taylor from getting rusty. But this game is all about preparing for Alabama the following week.
Florida Key: Defense
I wouldn’t usually suggest this against a machine gun type offense like the Air Raid. But I’d like to see Florida body up on Kentucky’s receivers and play tight bump n run coverage. The reason behind this is simple: I don’t believe Kentucky’s receivers are athletic enough to get free from Florida’s cornerbacks. Vernon Hargreaves may be the best corner in the game, and Duke Dawson, Jalen Tabor and Brian Poole are young but very physically talented. Until Kentucky’s receivers prove to be able to create separation and get open, Florida should play tight and physical, give the QB tiny windows and then try to jump routes.
Key Matchup: Special Teams
Kentucky was able to stay in the game last year much longer than it should have because of a fake field goal that was taken in for a touchdown. That was a good play call for Kentucky and bad recognition by Florida. Without getting such help from the special teams, I’m not sure Kentucky has the talent to stay in this game for more than a drive or two into the second half.
What Does This Game Mean?
Florida’s gunning for its 28th consecutive win over Kentucky, and its 34th in the last 35 meetings with the Wildcats. More importantly, the Gators are looking for its tenth straight SEC season opening victory after running off nine in a row over Tennessee to start their last nine SEC seasons.
As I’ve said in the past two game previews, though, this game means nothing other than remaining unbeaten against the teams Florida should beat with its backups. It would be an SEC win, yes, but over a team that hasn’t won an SEC game since 2011 (for what it’s worth, that’s also the last time Kentucky has scored an offensive touchdown against Florida). This is a game that Florida SHOULD win, and very easily. Throwing a party, getting cocky and bragging after this win is strongly discouraged.
Here’s the biggest takeaway of Kentucky. They’re better than Florida’s first two opponents. Better offense, better defense, better coaching, and a better fan base. That said, they’re still nowhere near the caliber of team that’s required to walk into the Swamp and pull off a daring nighttime robbery over what figures to be a ranked Florida team, and make all the Georgia Southern jokes you want, but that was last year and this is this year. Translation: it’s not happening.
Driskel will look fantastic behind a great effort by the offensive line, Kelvin Taylor will get in the end zone twice, and Andre Debose will break through in the clutch for the touchdown catch that puts the Wildcats away. Defensively, Florida’s going to ground the Air Raid from the very beginning, and after Towles gets frustrated enough, he’ll make a bad decision and try to force one- right to Vernon Hargreaves, who will take it back for six to kick start the rout. Will Muschamp’s Gators go 3-0 to start the year, and walk into Tuscaloosa with confidence.
Projection: Florida 35, Kentucky 6