Jim McElwain’s Gators are off to a 1-0 start in my projections, having just blasted a haplessly overmatched UMass team to start the season. However, things get a little tougher in week two…
Previously Previewing: Massachusetts Minutemen
|GAME 2: KENTUCKY WILDCATS (2015: 5-7, 2-6 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2015 offense||2015 defense|
|Mark Stoops||9 offense, 4 defense||372 YPG/24.7 PPG||394 YPG/27.4 PPG|
|12-24, 4th year||60%, 61% of stat production||89th/95th in FBS||63rd/70th in FBS|
Series history: Florida 49, Kentucky 17
Last meeting: Florida 14, Kentucky 9 (2015)
Synopsis: Kentucky has made things interesting each of the last two years, a distinct change of pace from beatdowns like 63-5, 48-10, 38-0 and 41-7 that rained upon them in the years prior. A win over Florida in the Swamp would be just the tonic for a sickly program that hasn’t even made a bowl game since 2010. Meanwhile, Florida’s gunning for their 30th straight win over the Cats. Whoever wins, one thing is clear: the result promises to be seismic.
The skinny: Mark Stoops’ program has made some strides, but it has yet to reflect in their record. And it won’t be easy to change that in 2016. Kentucky will be looking for a new quarterback, and a whole slew of new faces on defense. Unfortunately for them, they’ll probably still be looking when they head down to the Swamp to take on a Florida team that’s got a return to Atlanta on their minds, and something tells me the Gators aren’t about to let an SEC cellar dweller ruin that for them.
Offensive breakdown: New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran will have plenty of toys at his disposal. The Cats do lose quarterback Patrick Towles to Boston College, so it will be up to Drew Barker to run the offense. For the most part, Barker played well after taking over for Towles last year… except for a horrid 6-22 performance against Louisville. Perhaps not coincidentally, Louisville was the one team Barker started against that had a winning record (8-5) in 2015.
But if Barker can step up and play well against the better teams, the Cats could be really, really good offensively. Garrett Johnson, Jeff Badet and Dorian Baker- Kentucky’s top three receivers from a year ago- all return (you may remember Johnson for torching the Gators not once but twice two years ago in Gainesville) and that’s nearly 2,000 yards of production Barker will get to throw to. The Cats also return everybody in their backfield, from Stanley Williams (855 rushing yards last year) to Jojo Kemp (555) to Mikel Horton (318).
Rounding out the offense is a veteran line that features four returning starters from last year, and here we find the other key to the unit. The Cats finished 79th in the country last year in rushing yards per game; that simply isn’t good enough. And the tape shows that a lot of the yards they did gain were due to the shiftiness of their tailbacks, rather than good blocking to open up some holes. The Cats are big up front (310 lbs. or more each) and they’re experienced, so there’s hope that there will be some improvement.
Offensive overview: There’s talent at the skill positions, which is worth a few points per game by itself, but there’s also a gigantic question mark at the most important position on the field. And while I don’t dispute the possibility that Barker fights through his growing pains and becomes legit, this isn’t likely to happen by the second game of the season. Grade: C+
Defensive breakdown: Good thing Kentucky has talent on offense, because their defense is about to undergo a complete facelift. One starter they do get back is Matt Elam, (different guy) and he may quietly be one of the best defensive tackles in the SEC East. But he better be, because he’s going to have to do the work of four people in order for this defense to succeed.
The middle level of the defense is an absolute mess. Two starting linebackers, Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan, already needed to be replaced before Jason Hatcher got arrested for drug trafficking and made that number three. The Cats will rely on lone returning starter Denzil Ware and Nebraska transfer Courtney Love, but Love played sparingly at Nebraska, and behind them, there’s literally no experience. Stoops has high hopes for middle linebacker Kash Daniel, but while there’s no doubting his talent, he’s had a rough spring in Lexington.
And then there’s the secondary, which could go either way. Stoops imported four star cornerback Jordan Griffin from the Georgia Bulldogs’ backyard, and the Kentucky staff hasn’t stopped crowing about it since Signing Day in February. We’ll find out soon enough if all that confidence is merited, because he’s probably going to have to play right away. Regardless of how Griffin turns out, the secondary still has to find an adequate replacement for departed safety AJ Stamps.
Defensive overview: Time for Mark Stoops to earn his paycheck by making something of his promising but extremely young defense. Unless some of the newcomers step up and become stars right away, the Cats will struggle. Grade: D+
Key matchup: Drew Barker vs. Florida’s defense. It really is as simple as this: Kentucky needs a positive performance from their quarterback, or else they have no chance. Florida, of course, will look to heat him up and force his hand early on. How will he react? The Gators are by far the best defense he’s ever faced (Vanderbilt, Charlotte, Louisville last year and Southern Mississippi to begin 2016) and the fact that the only success he’s ever had came against the worst of those teams doesn’t bode well for BBN. On the other hand, sometimes players break out out of the blue in games like this, and I won’t rule out the possibility of Barker doing just that.
The good news: Kentucky has had several teams better than the one they’ll field in 2016 lose to Florida teams that were worse than the Gators will be in 2016 during The Streak. And their weak defense figures to be just what the Gators’ inexperienced offense needs in order to build up some confidence for the tough SEC road ahead.
The bad news: The Wildcats have become something of a punch line among SEC football fans due to years of futility, but their offense is no joke, so underestimate their skill position players at your own peril. Jalen Tabor will have his hands full with Johnson, and Williams could inflict some real damage on the ground. And if Barker plays well, that’s just an added bonus for BBN.
Kentucky wins if… what I’ve been saying in nearly every section of this preview plays out in Kentucky’s favor; if Barker plays well. Gran can make things easier for Barker by calling running plays and quick passes to get the ball into the hands of guys he knows can make things happen, but there will come a time (or a few of them) where Barker will have to make a big play on his own. The Cats will then need to figure out how to stop what figures to be a balanced Gator offense. If they can do both, they have a real shot.
Florida wins if… they score touchdowns in the red zone. The Gators let Kentucky hang around far longer than they should have last year with various miscues on the shadow of the goal line, and that can’t happen this year with a more dangerous offense waiting on the other sideline. Kentucky’s defense is weak enough that Florida should have no trouble moving the ball, but there’s a huge difference between racking up yards and racking up points. Just ask the 2013 Miami Hurricanes.
Overview: I don’t think Florida will ever take an opponent lightly again after near disasters against Vanderbilt and FAU last year. And it sort of feels like Kentucky had the best shot to break “The Streak” against the Gators (29 and counting) they’re ever going to get two years ago and failed to do it. Still, there’s reason to be wary of Kentucky with all that speed at the skill positions, so Florida’s defense will need to come prepared. But at the end of the day, sheer talent wins. The Cats will give Florida some trouble early, but the Gators will expose Kentucky’s weak defense soon enough and run away with it.
Projection: Florida 41, Kentucky 14