Oh, how the world has changed since the last time Kentucky beat Florida in football.
Jim McElwain was a graduate assistant at Eastern Washington. Ronald Reagan was President. Tim Tebow wasn’t even born yet. Steve Spurrier was a year away from accepting his first college head coaching job at Duke. The top song was “That’s What Friends Are For.” Billy Donovan was a senior point guard at Providence under Rick Pitino. And most amazingly, Florida had never officially won an SEC Championship.
10,889 days have elapsed since Kentucky’s last victory over Florida, a 10-3 win in Lexington. The Gators have ripped off 29 consecutive wins in the series since then. That’s the longest active winning streak over an annual opponent in college football, and the third longest in the history of the sport.
What makes the streak so incredible is that Kentucky’s 29 losses have come in an unimaginable variety of ways. A triple overtime loss in a game they thought they won due to an expired play clock? Check. Getting beat for the game winning touchdown in the waning moments of a game they thought they had- a game that became famous for the radio announcer’s call of the play? Check. Blowing a 21-3 fourth quarter lead at home? Check.
Mixed in there were some beatdowns of truly historical proportions, with scores like 73-7, 65-0, and 63-5. Then there’s the second tier level of blowouts, such as 48-10, 38-0, 42-7, 48-14, 41-7, 44-10 and 47-15. Those scores made 38-10, 55-28, 59-31, 49-28 and 20-3 look like nail biters by comparison.
And with the way Kentucky looked against Southern Miss, particularly on defense, there’s reason to believe the streak will reach 30. The Drew Barker-led Wildcats were seemingly headed for the kind of blowout win the Gators were supposed to get against UMass, building a 28-7 lead late in the first half and holding USM to 96 yards throughout the game’s first 25 minutes when suddenly their defense broke down and allowed USM to drive 65 yards for a field goal. Somehow they recovered, forced a field goal and then scored to put themselves up 35-10.
But then they totally collapsed, allowing the Eagles to run wild for 359 yards and reel off 34 unanswered points in the game’s final 31 minutes. It was a total team effort, too. The Wildcats’ second half possessions ended thusly: fumble, punt, interception, punt, fumble. That’s a rather embarrassing palindrome for a team that scored five touchdowns in the first half, and when you pair an offense that stalls like that with a defense that gets run over, you have the perfect recipe for an epic choke job.
So now that Kentucky is fresh off of blowing a 25 point lead to a mid major (which sounds so much better than “non power-five conference team”) you can assume they’ll be emotional one way or another. Either they’ll come out with fire against Florida and play them tough, or they’ll play with the attitude that their season is over before it began and look rather lethargic.
Florida, though, can’t worry about Kentucky’s mindset. The Gators have their own problems.
Jim McElwain’s team struggled mightily to protect Luke Del Rio against Massachusetts. True, Del Rio was only sacked once, but that was against a UMass team that only averaged a sack a game in 2015, and he was constantly pressured in addition. Del Rio’s biggest strength is his decision making, and he’s especially good at making decisions when given less time than the average quarterback, but when you don’t give him any time to make decisions, he’s going to struggle. The 16 incompletions he threw against the Minutemen were more an indication of his inability to operate and go through his progressions than anything else.
Del Rio, of course, could improve some himself. He seemed a little too quick to look for his safety valve, and while I’d definitely prefer a quarterback to err on the side of caution than risk, the good defenses are going to figure this out and defend against it. Again, it’s hard to really evaluate his performance, or at least put a lot of stock into any evaluation of his performance, because of the offensive line, but maybe he can work on some quick timing routes in lieu of check downs if the line continues to struggle.
But here’s the main takeaway from that game, something I’ve pondered for four days now: McElwain and Doug Nussmeier had to be holding back at least 75% of the playbook against UMass. They just had to. Even clinging to a 10-7 lead in the fourth quarter, I got the impression that McElwain wasn’t the least bit worried. The most creative the offense got was when Del Rio hit Brandon Powell and DeAndre Goolsby on post routes on back to back plays to open the fourth quarter. And while I can’t say I love the idea of a 24-7 final score against a team that was a 40 point underdog, I can tolerate it.
I’d be stunned if the Gators’ offense didn’t look at least somewhat better against Kentucky, both because their defense is horrible and because McElwain figures to tip his hand slightly more. I’m also not going to be shocked if it doesn’t look significantly more open because of the fact that Florida travels to Knoxville in two weeks, but I do expect to see more exploitations of obvious mismatches, more aggressive play calling, and more tempo if the drive is going well.
And on a larger scale, I’d be stunned if Kentucky is still in this game in the fourth quarter the way UMass was. I no longer believe the Gators will win by 30 the way I projected them to in the summer, but something tells me that they’ll win relatively easily.
The best thing Florida could hope for after their week one performance is a team of similarly low caliber to make corrections against and take their frustrations out on, but one that comes with the label of being an SEC team (for conference record purposes, obviously. The SEC pretty much blew their reputation last Saturday with the exception of Alabama and maybe Georgia.) Now, they get one, and it just so happens to be the one they’ve beaten 29 consecutive times. Oh, and Florida gets two of their best players back for this one- All-American corner Jalen Tabor and explosive tight end C’yontai Lewis.
Want a prediction? Sure. Bet on superior talent, a defense that’s well equipped to stop Kentucky’s semi-potent offense, and one of the best home field advantages in college football. Give me Florida 31, Kentucky 13