Previewing Florida’s 2017 Opponents: Game Four, Kentucky Wildcats

The Gators have beaten Kentucky 30 straight times. Can they get number 31 in Lexington?
Head Coach Returning starters 2016 offense 2016 defense
Mark Stoops 8 offense, 9 defense 420 YPG/30.0 PPG 440 YPG/31.2 PPG
19-30, 5th year 79%, 90% of stat production 61st/58th in FBS 89th/87th in FBS

All time series: Florida 50, Kentucky 17

Last meeting: Florida 45, Kentucky 7

Synopsis: Kentucky has scared the daylights out of Florida a few times during the three decade streak, but more often than not has been on the receiving end of some gargantuan beatdowns. The Gators have beaten Kentucky by 34 points of more in six of the last nine meetings, including a 63-5 annihilation in 2008. So under normal circumstances, the Wildcats’ main purpose is to serve as the tackling dummies on Gator highlight reels. However, Mark Stoops may have finally gotten them back to a point of respectability by beating Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and reaching a bowl game to conclude 2016. And with many of those same starters back, dismissing them as a threat would not be wise.

Offensive breakdown: Kentucky gets eight starters back on offense, most notably Stephen Johnson at quarterback. Johnson provides a true dual threat at the controls, but he has to cut down on the mistakes. He threw six picks and lost six fumbles in eleven games as the starting QB in a run heavy offense last year. And above all else, it’s been turnovers that have historically doomed the Wildcats against the Gators, so he needs to be doubly careful in that respect against the Florida defense. He’s got the arm and the legs to make plays, but the key is making them for the right team.

The Wildcats did suffer a big blow with running back Boom Williams departing for the NFL, but they’ve got a more than capable replacement in freshman All-American selection Benny Snell. Following the 45-7 curb stomping the Cats took in Gainesville, Snell was inserted into the running back rotation and shined, picking up 1,091 yards in the final eleven games of the year. Sihiem King and AJ Rose will back him up, and together, the three could give Kentucky its deepest running back rotation since the Rich Brooks days. And with four of five returning starters on the offensive line, Kentucky could have a legitimate running game.

If there’s a question mark on this offense, it’s at wide receiver. Big play receiver Jeff Badet has transferred to Oklahoma, leaving seniors Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker to carry the load. There’s certainly promise there, and part of their lack of production over their careers has to be attributed to the instability of the QB situation in Lexington, but now they need to step up and come through in their final seasons if this offense is to truly tick.

Offensive Grade: B. This was a solid offense once Snell and Johnson got involved in it after the Florida loss last year, and with many of those same pieces returning, it’s safe to assume they’ll be solid again. The offense won’t be this team’s problem.

Defensive breakdown: A horrid defense that ranked in the bottom two thirds of every major statistical category will return most of its key pieces in 2017. Is that good? We’ll find out. The real losses come on the defensive line, where the Wildcats will have to replace Alvonte Bell and Courtney Miggins, and will rely on Naquez Pringle and Adrian Middleton to anchor the interior. They’ll need JUCO transfer Phil Hoskins to step in and fill Miggins’ vacated end role immediately And then there’s Matt Elam, the five star recruit who has yet to make an impact yet. How he fares will go a long way toward determining the defense’s success.

The linebacker position looks to be in better position. Denzil Ware, Josh Allen, Courtney Love and Jordan Jones have all drawn praise from coaches heading into summer practices. Ware, Allen and Jones combined for 17.5 sacks last year, and together could make for a frightening pass rush. They’ll need to get better at stopping the run as a unit, though, (225 yards a game last year, good for 108th out of 128 FBS teams) if they want to take that step forward.

The secondary appears to be the strength of the defense. Third year starting cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry join standout safety Mike Edwards in returning from a top 50 ranked defensive backfield a year ago. It’s an aggressive unit, sometimes overly so but Mark Stoops will be the first to tell you that it’s the level of the defense he trusts the most.

Defensive grade: C+. Any defense that Luke Del Rio can light on fire can’t be fully trusted, even if that same defense grew throughout the year and forced Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson into turning the ball over in three of the final four possessions of the game. And unless the Wildcats can figure out a way to shore up that run defense, Florida has as clear a path to victory in this game as any.

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 wins if… they can establish the running game. Sure, it’s the same key to victory as I used against Tennessee, but Kentucky is even less likely to survive a big day on the ground from Florida than the Vols are. And regardless of who winds up taking snaps for Florida, the running game is going to be the primary method of attack- at least in September.

Kentucky wins if… Stephen Johnson has a big day and picks the Gator secondary apart. Their ground game may keep them in it, but Johnson will have to make plays with his arm to force Florida to back off and vacate the box. If he’s able to do this on a consistent basis, the Cats will have a real shot at the upset.

Overview: Kentucky is a much more dangerous team than the 45-7 smackdown in the Swamp would have you believe. Those same players got much better as the year went along, and now with enough of them back in 2017, some are even touting the Cats as a dark-as-night horse to win the SEC East. And the streak has to end eventually.

But there’s just one problem. Florida has every single positional advantage over Kentucky- even at the Cats’ positions of strength. Baity and Westry are good corners, but Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland are top flight receivers. Advantage Florida. Johnson and Baker are good receivers, but Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner are top flight DB’s. Advantage Florida again. And so on. Kentucky being better, improved, returning so many starters, and so on is good for them, but does not change the fact that the Gators’ sheer talent dwarfs theirs.

Of course, sheer talent on its own doesn’t win football games. There will come a day where Kentucky will end the streak against a Florida team that’s more talented on paper. But asking them to do so against a Gator team that’s sniffing a third straight trip to Atlanta, and this time a whole lot more on top of it, isn’t realistic. Stoops’ team will fight, and will keep the game interesting for much longer than they did last year, but they simply don’t appear to have the run defense to beat the run-oriented Gators.

Projection: Florida 31, Kentucky 20