Given the binary formula of “pick a big number, pick a small number and that’s your final score” that breaking down FCS opponents ultimately devolves into, I’ve decided to mercifully skip Florida’s FCS opponents for my game previews this year. So I’m going to say that Florida wins 62-10 over UT Martin in its home opener to put the Gators at 2-0 when they take their first road trip of the year. And given what happened last year, it’s a pure business trip.
Previously previewing: Game One, Miami Hurricanes
|KENTUCKY WILDCATS (2018: 10-3, 5-3 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2018 offense||2018 defense|
|Mark Stoops||6 offense, 3 defense||361 YPG/26.6 PPG||326 YPG/16.3 PPG|
|7th year (36-39)||64%, 37% of stat production||104th/85th in FBS||20th/8th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 51, Kentucky 18
Introduction: we all know about the streak Kentucky snapped last year, but what’s easy to forget was just how easily that obscene winning streak over the Wildcats could have been broken in 2014, 2015 and 2017. With a 45-7 blowout of the Cats in 2016 standing as the anomaly, this game has actually been pretty much dead even over the last half decade; Florida’s 14-9 win in 2015 was the least stressful of the other four games to take part in that stretch. So while Kentucky does have massive personnel losses to deal with, not the least of which are do-everything tailback Benny Snell and No. 7 overall draft pick Josh Allen, overlooking them as a threat is downright insanity. Especially after, you know, what happened last year.
Kentucky’s offense suffers heavy casualties from its historic 2018 team. One guy who will be back, though, is former Oregon Duck Terry Wilson. As Florida became all too aware of last year, Wilson may not be the most accurate passer in America, but he’s accurate enough to set you on fire if you take a nap mid-play. More concerning, though, is his running ability. He’s not a true dual threat QB in the sense that he’s as gifted in both facets as, say, Tim Tebow or Cam Newton, but he’s definitely adequate at both.
It took a great team around him last year to make him look good, though, and Mark Stoops is now faced with the unenviable task of replacing the first Wildcat since Tim Couch in 1998 to garner even the slightest bit of Heisman hype in Benny Snell. The Cats will look to get some production out of upperclassmen AJ Rose (72 carries, 442 yards in backup duty in 2018) and Sihiem King in his place. The good news is that while the Cats do lose two starters on the offensive line, including All-American guard Bunchy Stallings, they will get ex five star OT Landon Young back after he was lost for all of 2018 with a knee injury. If the line can stay healthy, Kentucky should have a solid running game again even without Snell.
The big question for Kentucky is who will be catching the passes. Tight end CJ Conrad and wide receivers Dorian Baker and David Bouvier are gone, leaving three starting spots up for grabs. The one constant will be rising junior Lynn Bowden, and he figures to be the lynchpin of the offense the way Snell was a year ago. There are over a dozen pass catchers on Kentucky’s 2019 roster, and there’s definitely some intrigue with some of them, such as incoming speedster Demontae Crumes, but it’s just not accurate to not label this part of the squad as an unknown.
Offensive grade: C. Without Snell, Baker and Bouvier, this offense takes the step back from “inconsistent but potentially terrifying” to “potentially competent but largely unknown” in 2019. Still: Wilson and Bowden teamed up to roast the (admittedly depleted) Gator secondary last year, so proceed with caution when celebrating the aforementioned trio’s departure.
Because Kentucky rotated so many different defensive linemen in and out of games, it shouldn’t be a problem for Stoops to replace a pair of lost starters here. Josh Paschal should lead the way at end and Quinton Bohanna figures to lock down one of the interior roles. Behind those guys, Calvin Taylor, Marquan McCall, Phil Hoskins and TJ Carter will battle for starting roles while the losers of those battles will still get plenty of reps. So up front, Kentucky may have lost some star power, but they’ll be fine.
The second level of the Wildcats’ defense is a far bigger concern. Luckily for them, Mark Stoops recruited hard at this position. There’s no replacing Josh Allen’s production, but underclassmen KD McDaniel and Jordan Wright will compete for the hybrid JACK position while JUCO transfer Marquez Bembry will likely get the nod at the other outside linebacker spot. Kentucky is in better shape in the middle, with captain Kash Daniel and Citrus Bowl hero DeAndre Square both returning.
But the secondary is a complete and utter mess. All four starters are gone, leaving reserve safeties Tyrel Aijan, Jordan Griffin and Davonte Robinson as the only returning DB’s who have taken a single snap. New faces will be plugged into both corner slots, and not one of them poses a physical threat to stop bigger and faster receivers. No matter how well the front seven reloads, the defensive backfield could do the entire unit in.
Defensive grade: C-. There’s talent here, but it’s scattered about too sparingly for the Cats to be a real player in the SEC East. And the secondary could wind up making the defense look worse than it really is.
Key Matchup: Kentucky’s front seven vs. Florida’s offensive line. I’m going with this matchup as the key for the second straight preview, because all it will take is a bad showing up front for the Gators to completely fall apart. The Cats’ front seven takes a clear step back with the loss of Allen, but there are still enough pieces there to make Feleipe Franks miserable if his friends up front aren’t ready. And if the line does block, mismatches elsewhere on the field (namely Florida’s receivers vs. Kentucky’s defensive backs) flip from unavailable to available.
Florida key to victory: set the edge defensively. Sure, Florida’s failure to do this last year against Kentucky was due in large part to having three of its eleven defensive starters missing, but that’s just it. To be kind, there were players on the field for Florida in that game who never should have been on the field; a fully healthy Gator defense likely has no problem setting the edge against a less talented team. Even without Snell, this is going to be critical with the fleet-footed Terry Wilson at the controls.
Kentucky key to victory: harass Franks and force him into mistakes. There’s no way for Kentucky’s smaller corners to stay with the likes of Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Tyrie Cleveland, but there is one way they won’t have to. And that is if Kentucky blitzes the hell out of Franks and pressures him into doing things he shouldn’t, or at the very least not giving the Gator wideouts time to abuse their defensive counterparts. The Wildcats have a history of getting after Franks, too. In both of his previous starts against Kentucky, Florida was losing after Franks took his last snap of the game.
Fun fact: Most fans are under the assumption that because Florida just had a 31 game winning streak against Kentucky snapped, the Gators have always owned the Wildcats. But that isn’t true.
Kentucky actually won 12 of the first 16 games in this series, played sporadically from 1917 to 1956. Florida would then rip off an eight game winning streak to knot the all time series score at 12 wins apiece, but then Kentucky countered by winning four of the next six matchups. Going into the 1980 game, Kentucky still held a 16-14 head to head advantage.
It wasn’t until November 12, 1982, that Florida took the head to head series lead over Kentucky for the first time ever with its third straight win over the Wildcats. The Gators’ 39-13 win in Lexington put Florida ahead in the series, 17-16. That served as the launching pad for Florida in the rivalry, who, even after last year’s loss, has beaten Kentucky 37 of the last 39 times.
You can throw all your preconceived notions about Kentucky being a gimme game out the window after last year, in case prior close calls against the Wildcats weren’t enough to do it. The Gators’ winning streak was like a caveman that had found fire, couldn’t help itself, and just kept playing with it (2003, 2007, 2014, 2015, 2017). And after giggling and crowing about playing daredevil one too many times, the streak finally got set ablaze and reduced to ashes when Davonte Robinson stretched the ball past a prostrate Tyler Jordan with zeroes across the clock last year in Gainesville.
But you also can’t just ignore the fact that Kentucky suffered a massive exodus of talent, and production, from its special 2018 team. Unfortunately for Big Blue Nation, this is football, not basketball. Kentucky can’t just reload at the snap of a finger. So while it’s clear they’re no longer the SEC East’s doormat, they’re still not in an ideal position personnel wise to compete for the division title.
Things may get a little tricky on the road, though. Florida has won its last three games in Lexington by a combined 23 points, and the last time the Gators went there Franks was benched for his incompetence. But this will be a starkly different Franks that Florida will be bringing up there, with a far stronger cast of players around him to compete against a far weaker Kentucky team than Stoops has had in at least four years. It may not be the bloodbath many are hoping for, but the Gators will grind out a workmanlike victory on the road to start a new streak.
Projection: Florida 27, Kentucky 17