|KENTUCKY WILDCATS (2017: 7-6, 4-4 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2017 offense||2017 defense|
|Mark Stoops||6 offense, 9 defense||351 YPG/25.8 PPG||426 YPG/28.6 PPG|
|26-36, 6th year||46%, 90% of stat production||103rd/89th in FBS||89th/81st in FBS|
All time series: Florida 51, Kentucky 17
Last meeting: Florida 28, Kentucky 27 (2017)
Synopsis: Florida has absolutely owned Kentucky on the gridiron, beating the Wildcats 31 consecutive times- the fourth longest streak over one opponent in college football history. Failure to take them seriously can result in the fright of your life, though, and the Gators only need to look back at the 2014 and 2017 games to remind themselves of that should complacency ever set in. While Mark Stoops’ team is less frightening in the Swamp than up in the Bluegrass State, there is still some talent there inside those ridiculous blue and ever-so-slightly-lighter-blue checkerboard jerseys, but there shouldn’t- keyword shouldn’t, not necessarily won’t- be enough to take down Florida under the lights in Gainesville.
Offensive breakdown: Kentucky’s problems start at quarterback. Stephon Johnson and Drew Barker are no longer Wildcats, and that leaves Stoops in a quandary: he’s got to pick between ex-Oregon Duck Terry Wilson and Gunner Hoak. Neither has any real experience, so the decision will weigh heavily on whether Stoops prefers the mobile quarterback in Wilson or the pure passer in Hoak. Good luck with that.
And good luck with finding guys for whoever wins that job to throw to, too. Kentucky loses top wideout Garrett Johnson, a four year starter and the only Wildcat to pull in over 300 yards of receiving yards last year. Throw in the departures of fellow wideouts Blake Bone and Kayaune Ross, and the Wildcats are looking at a complete overhaul at the wide receiver position. There’s tight end CJ Conrad, fully healthy former and future deep threat Dorian Baker and junior receiver Tavin Richardson, but Kentucky is going to need more options than that to have a functional passing game.
The good news for Kentucky’s offense is that they’ll get tailback Benny Snell back, the closest thing to a star player they had on their roster last year. Backing him up is the raw but promising Asim Rose, and if the offensive line can continue to improve, the Cats could have a respectable ground attack.
Offensive Grade: C-. Snell is a bona fide playmaker. Unfortunately for Kentucky, he’s the only one on this offense, and Florida knows that and will spend most of its energy defending against the run. Shut Snell down, and the whole offense collapses.
Defensive breakdown: A horrid defense that ranked in the bottom two thirds of every major statistical category in 2016 took a major step forward in 2017. Now, ten of the eleven starters from that 2017 defense are back. Normally, those two sentences elicit hope for a program, but when you’ve recruited mostly two and three stars for years, that has negligible value.
Two of those ten starters include Denzil Ware on the defensive line and Josh Allen in the middle level. The Wildcats didn’t get much pressure on opposing quarterbacks last year, and Stoops is going to count on those guys to take the next step and provide a pass rush. Similarly, he’s also going to need them help create negative plays in general, another statistic Kentucky lagged behind the rest of the nation in last year.
More concerning for the Wildcats than their pass rush, though, is their overall pass defense. Kentucky finished 113th out of 130 FBS with 264 pass yards allowed per game, including two touchdowns against Florida in which they didn’t even bother to cover a receiver. Big Blue does return all four starting defensive backs, though: Derrick Baity and Lonnie Johnson make a respectable 1-2 starting corner tandem, and the Cats are also in decent shape with Mike Edwards and Darius West at safety. But experience only goes so far. Can they shut down Tyrie Cleveland and Kedarius Toney? We’ll see, but their game tape from last year suggests no.
Defensive grade: C. The players on this defense try their best, earn high praise from their coaches, and want to win badly. Which is all well and good, but that’s not going to break up a pass headed for the freakishly athletic Tyrie Cleveland on a fade route in the end zone, nor will it bring down the mammoth of a man Nick Savage is turning Jordan Scarlett into in the open field. Experience only goes so far. Kentucky is simply outmatched.
Key matchup: Kentucky run defense vs. Florida run game. Jordan Scarlett, LaMical Perine and Mark Thompson each individually gashed the Wildcats’ defense last year. Of course, Del Rio did too, but at least their pass defense improved as the year went along. Kentucky has no chance- repeat, no chance- to beat Florida if they can’t at least slow the Gators’ rushing attack.
Florida key to victory: dominate the trenches. Recruiting rankings suggest that Florida is bigger, faster, stronger and just plain better everywhere. So, OK, let’s see it play out that way on the field. Even at night, the Gators can make things easy for themselves by overpowering Kentucky at the line of scrimmage and watching them wilt in the early September Florida heat.
Kentucky key to victory: Go for broke. Make things happen. You don’t win any game, period, by sitting back and playing not to lose, much less one played in possibly the most hostile environment in the country against a program that’s significantly more talented than you and has beaten you 31 straight times.
Fun fact: We know about the close calls Kentucky gave Florida in 2014, 2015 and 2017. But the rest of the ten games that have been played since 2008? Florida won those seven games by an average score of 44-7.
Summary: Kentucky is not the laughingstock they once were under Mark Stoops. They’re by no means a powerhouse, but they’ve certainly taken steps past that point. As a program, they’re decent, and their roster reflects that with a couple of diamonds in the rough that have blossomed into true terrors for opponents. And given the joke of a program Stoops inherited, he deserves a dose of credit for that.
But that still doesn’t equate to a program that’s objectively smart to pick to beat Florida in the Swamp, even with the rebuilding job Dan Mullen has ahead of him and the major questions he and Brian Johnson are facing at quarterback. Though by Gator standards this team doesn’t appear to be very good, they still possess a ridiculous natural talent advantage over Kentucky. Other than maybe Benny Snell vs. the Florida linebackers, there isn’t a single position vs. position matchup in which Kentucky has the edge.
So, what’s going to happen? Will the Gators get win #32 in succession over the Cats? Well, the streak has to end at some point, because that’s a mathematical certainty. But that point will not be this year. Florida’s just… better. Everywhere. At every facet of the game.
Projection: Florida 31, Kentucky 14