@ KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Coach: Mark Stoops, 3rd year (7-17)
2014 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Last meeting: Florida 36, Kentucky 30 (3OTs) (2015)
All time series: Florida, 48-17
Streak: Florida, 28
The skinny: Kentucky is a strange program. Every seven years or so they have a breakout season, which means they go 7-5 and then win the Music City Bowl. Considering they haven’t even made a bowl game since 2010, this might be the year for that. Mark Stoops did seem to have UK on the right track early last year, starting off 5-1 (with the only loss coming in triple overtime to Florida). But then the Wildcats faltered down the stretch and lost their last six games, seemingly epitomizing their program’s history. Oh, so close to mediocrity, and yet so far. Then there’s Kentucky’s ridiculous 28 game losing streak to Florida, a curse that seems to grow stronger and stronger with each victory. And it’s for all those reasons, plus the fact that this year’s game is in Lexington, that I feel the need to bring out the flashing marquee with neon letters spelling out, “THIS IS A TRAP GAME.”
Returning starters: 7
Shannon Dawson comes over from West Virginia to take the reins of the Kentucky offense. Mark Stoops preferred another guy who ran the Air Raid offense after Neal Brown departed for Troy, so he snatched Dana Holgerson’s offensive coordinator for the last four years. Not a bad choice. Dawson’s first big coaching decision will be who to start at QB. It’s between incumbent Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, both of whom lit it up in the spring game.
Generally speaking, Dawson has a very good offense to work with. The Wildcats return two of their top three running backs, and even though this offense was built for the passing game, expect to see plenty of JoJo Kemp and Stanley Williams. Kemp may be best known as the guy who promised to beat Florida in the Swamp last year, but he’s gotten bigger and improved tremendously as a blocker. The Wildcats also return four of their starting five offensive linemen from last year.
If there’s a key to this offense, it’s the wide receivers. Kentucky loses two of its top three receivers from a year ago in Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue, but they do return their top receiver, Ryan Timmons. Behind him, it’s murky; Garrett Johnson, Blake Bone, Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet are all very capable playmakers, but none have really done anything yet. Not counting the Florida game, Johnson has yet to record more than 30 receiving yards or three catches in a game… and he’s their second leading returning wideout. It’s time for this sophomore quartet to step up, or this Air Raid offense will remain grounded.
Offensive Grade: C+. This offense has the ability to be really, really good. But too many unknowns in the passing game- meaning the wide receivers- leaves me thinking UK is a year away offensively.
Returning starters: 7
Kentucky will have a hell of a time rebuilding its defensive front. Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are both gone, leaving Mark Stoops to have to break in two new defensive ends. They’ll have to rely on former JUCO DT transfer Melvin Lewis to hold down the fort on the defensive line.
But the rest of the defense appears to be in solid shape. Linebackers Ryan Flannigan and Jason Hatcher form a respectable 1-2 punch at the middle level of what’s become a 3-4 defense. Hatcher was originally a defensive end, and brings those defensive end skills to his outside linebacker position, while Flannigan gained some playing experience at Blinn Junior College (yes, the same JUCO school Cam Newton went to) before arriving at Kentucky and is now more familiar with the defensive system.
The secondary has the most experience, though some of it may be the wrong kind of experience. Leading interceptionist AJ Stamp returns at safety, while Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller give Stoops two seniors at the corner positions. Then again, neither of them are exactly all-SEC candidates. In fact, Tiller probably won the game for Florida last year by not only dropping a likely pick six, but tapping it right to Demarcus Robinson, who took it 20 additional yards. Stoops has made it clear that he’s not against replacing one of them with a freshman should one break out in summer ball.
Defensive Grade: C-. A 3-4 defense such as the one Kentucky runs will need a better defensive line than the one Mark Stoops currently has. It’s going to be hard to overcome such deficiencies on the defensive front, and thus, it will set the whole defense back.
Kentucky wins if… they win the turnover battle and lock down in the red zone. Turnovers are an underdog’s best friend, and have been Florida’s downfall in several of the more shocking upsets in recent memory. And their defense isn’t a great one, but if they can force Florida to keep coming away with field goals and hang around, they could set themselves up for a memorable finish.
Florida wins if… their offensive line grows up quickly and handles the Kentucky defensive front. Again, UK’s defensive line isn’t great, but neither is Florida’s offensive line. This is a matchup of both teams’ biggest weaknesses, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If Florida’s biggest weakness can come through and give Kelvin Taylor room to run and Will Grier time to throw, I like the Gators’ chances.
Three things to watch for:
1) Can Florida’s secondary not get burned, please? Last year, Kentucky’s Garrett Johnson burned Florida twice down the right sideline for long touchdowns. That’s a coaching issue, too bad Will Muschamp was too busy thinking up creative ways to spin his post game press conference to fix it. It’s up to Geoff Collins to run a defense that doesn’t commit the worst mistake possible: let a receiver get behind the entire defense. Without those two plays to Johnson, Kentucky probably isn’t even in the game; not allowing similar big plays would be an excellent way to not get run out of Commonwealth Stadium.
2) It’s Will Grier’s first road test in a hostile environment. OK, it’s Kentucky, but still. It sure isn’t the Swamp, and remember, Kentucky beat LSU in this same stadium in their national championship season in 2007. The crowd will be noisy, probably screaming obscene things at him, etc. Grier has never dealt with any of this before. Being the brother of Nash Grier (and appearing in dozens of his videos) probably means he’s not afraid of big spotlights, and he does radiate confidence in every step he takes, but… you just can’t known how that will translate on the field.
3) Can Kentucky stop Demarcus Robinson? They kind of need to, or it could be a long night for them. Robinson first broke out against the Wildcats last year in the Swamp, and now he’s in an offense that figures to throw even more. Fred Tiller was absolutely torched by Robinson last year (15 catches for 216 yards), and Robinson has only grown and improved since then. Will Grier figures to throw a lot of balls in his direction, so Tiller & co. better be ready.
Kentucky overall grade: C+. Years of recruiting two and three star recruits has created a program with a 7-5 upside. Mark Stoops has recruited a little bit better than his predecessors, but the principle remains. Oh, Kentucky returns plenty of starters, but there’s a difference between Kentucky returning 14 starters and Florida returning 14 starters.
Overview: Trap. Game.
No, Kentucky really isn’t that good of a team, but they’re good enough to take advantage of Florida mistakes. And this is a Florida team with a lot of question marks going on the road at night, which means that they very well may make some mistakes. Compare each team’s talent, and sure, Florida wins. But the more talented or even better coached team doesn’t always win. Things can happen that nobody expects to happen, and sometimes those things all benefit the less talented team.
But in the end, Florida’s defense, featuring Vernon Hargreaves, Jalen Tabor, Jonathan Bullard and Antonio Morrison, is too good to let Kentucky win. I refuse to believe it’s possible to play any worse as a unit against an inferior opposing unit than UF’s secondary did against the Wildcats last year. Geoff Collins will straighten that out, and thus, Kentucky’s offense will struggle. Meanwhile, Florida’s offense will have some problems early, but they’ll get things figured out in time to put together a crucial late game winning drive. Florida won’t get a pretty win, but they will get a win.
Projection: Florida 23, Kentucky 17