Gameday: Florida Gators at Kentucky Wildcats

Florida Gators
Emory Jones runs for a big gain agianst Ole Miss in 2020. (Photo Credit: floridagators.com)

Tonight, the Florida Gators face the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington. This will be Florida’s first true road test of the season in what should be an incredibly hostile environment. 

The Gators look to continue to roll through the SEC East as they take on division foe, Kentucky. And if recent history is any indication, this is definitely a game to really keep an eye on. And as the matchup with SEC East juggernaut Georgia looms in just 4 weeks, this game against the Wildcats presents a big test for the Gators. 

By 10 pm tonight, we will know a lot more about where the Gators stand in terms of being able to play consistent championship-level football. However, if Florida struggles, then we will yet again have a team that plays to the level of competition, and this will likely, and yet again be a good but not great Florida team with the ceiling of an At Large bid in a New Years Six bowl.

Key Storylines

This is not the Kentucky of old. Mark Stoops has this Kentucky program rolling with a ton of confidence. And to no surprise, this Kentucky fan base considers this gave versus the Florida Gators to be their biggest home game of the season. Kroger Field is going to be electric. 

The Florida Gators will also be rolling in with confidence. Florida has not lost in Lexington since 1986. Yes, it has been 35 years since Florida has lost a road contest in Lexington versus the Wildcats. But history is meaningless in this matchup. All that matters is what happens on the field for 60 minutes. Both teams will be prepared to play well against their opponents.

One interesting storyline to come up in this game is Florida is touting the ninth-ranked offense in yards per game (540.8 yards) while Kentucky is touting the ninth-ranked defense in the nation (allowing 260.0 yards). Something has to give here. One fact that can not be encapsulated in this simple numeric stat, is the fact that Florida played Alabama, one of the best defenses in the country (though this take may be proven moot after today’s matchup with Alabama and Ole Miss). Florida was still able to run for 245 yards, and accumulate a total of 440 yards against the Crimson Tide. So I do expect Florida to play well offensively against Kentucky.

On the Florida Gators side of things, Anthony Richardson is FINALLY “100% ready to go” per Dan Mullen. To be clear, we think Emory Jones deserves respect as the starting quarterback for how well he has done over the last two games. Still, Anthony Richardson has provided a spark to this team every time he has stepped on the field, and it would be nearsighted of me to not be excited about the prospect of another playmaker coming into the game. 

Still, it remains to be seen how often and how early Richardson comes in and plays in the game. I for one hope we do see Anthony Richardson come in early in the game, and really test the defense. In fact, though unlikely, I think it would be ludicrous to see Anthony Richardson AND Emory Jones start on the field at the same time, the first play of the game!

Key Matchup

The key matchup is going to be the Kentucky Wildcats Offense vs. the Florida Gators Defense. I typically focus on one position or facet of the game, but in this game, I see cause for concern all over the field on the Kentucky Offense. 

It all starts with new Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen previously was part of the offensive staff with the Los Angeles Rams. And with that came his connection with Sean McVay, one of the most prolific offensive minds in the NFL. And with that coaching tree has come some pretty interesting offensive schemes. Kentucky likes to run a lot of bunch formations which can create matchup issues for opposing linebackers. 

While Kentucky has definitely been effectively running the ball, lead by Rodriguez with 521 yards and 4 touchdowns, on film, I was very impressed with the Kentucky passing game. Quarterback Will Levis has thrown for 902 yards and 7 touchdowns. On the receiving end, Wan’Dale Robinson has been playing out of his mind, recording 16.1 yards per reception. To put it into other words, this is a first down every catch. Easily. 

Normally, this having one big-time receiver on the opposing team would be fine for this Gator Defense – just put Kaiir Elam on him. However, unfortunately, we aren’t promised Kaiir Elam in this game as he is recovering from a minor knee injury. Hopefully, he does play, but if not, Wan’Dale will likely present some issues for the young corners that are behind Elam on the depth chart.

For Florida to stop Kentucky, they have to tackle better. Last week, Tennessee exposed this Gator defense twice, and it all came down to poor attack angles and missed tackles on those two long touchdowns. Still, if Florida can get Kaiir Elam back, and if Florida can tackle better, I think this is a game that the Florida defense can definitely dominate, especially in the second half, when the pregame hype wears down. 

Players to Watch

Anthony Richardson, QB AND Emory Jones, QB  – For two weeks in a row, I called Anthony Richardson as my “Player to Watch” on offense, and for two weeks in a row, he did not play. Well, now that Coach Mullen has announced that Anthony will indeed be back, you best believe I am going to be keeping an eye on him. He is still the most explosive player on this team, averaging 25 yards per carry!  Now, I certainly don’t expect him to keep up with that clip on the ground, but there is still no denying how special of a player he really is. 

Emory Jones though has continued to improve as the starting quarterback. And last week, he was very effective. He completed 21 of 27 passes, throwing for 209 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also ran for 144 yards on just 15 carries! If he can continue to eliminate turnovers and big mistakes, facilitate an effective pass game, AND run the ball like he did last week, Florida will have no issues offensively versus Kentucky.

Trey Dean III, S – On the defensive side of the ball, I look for Safety, Trey Dean to have a crucial game for the Florida Gators’ defense. Especially with all the unique formations, and pass concepts that Kentucky OC Liam Coen will throw against the Gators, Dean will really be critical in not only making sound tackles but making key communication with the rest of the Florida secondary.

What Must Happen for the Florida Gators to Win

It’s amazing I’ve gone through almost this entire article and not discussed turnovers. Kentucky is one of the worst teams in terms of turnover margin, touting a -9 turnover margin. So it is no question that the Florida Gators will have to force turnovers. Just think, Kentucky is STILL undefeated while giving the ball away nine more times to their opponent than they’ve taken away. If Florida is to cruise against Kentucky, the Gators will have to force and capitalize on turnovers all game. If the turnover margin between the two teams is even, expect a long night in Lexington. 

Another key to winning the game for Florida is going to be creating explosive plays. It will certainly help that Anthony Richardson should be back, but I am more so talking about the passing game. Florida needs to really push the ball downfield in the passing game and break off a long touchdown or two. Not only will this change the pace of the game, but it will also eliminate the possibility of Kentucky making a big play in the Redzone.  

What Must Happen for the Kentucky Wildcats to Win

For Kentucky to win, a lot will have to go right for the home team. Kroger Field will have to have an impact. The fanbase is expected to be raucous tonight, and if Kentucky can make enough big plays and forced missed tackles, then it will be a long night for the Gators – especially if Kentucky can get the crowd involved. 

It will also be key for Kentucky to slow down the Florida run game. DeAndre Square will need to have a monster night and in a turn of events compared to the rest of the season, Kentucky will have to force turnovers.

Final Analysis

Still, there is a reason why the ESPN FPI Matchup Predictor is only giving Kentucky a 22.6% chance to win the game. On paper, Florida is certainly the better team, and thus far this season has dominated the lines of scrimmage. If Florida can get more consistency from Emory Jones and balance the rush attack with a good passing game, Kentucky (and the rest of the SEC) better watch out.

While I do expect the game to be close through two quarters, and for the Kentucky defense and the crowd to really have an impact on the Gators to start, I expect Florida to pull away in the second half in a dominant fashion. 

This will be another major victory as Florida gets one step closer to their aspirations of winning the SEC Championship.

Score Prediction: 34-21 Florida

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