LEXINGTON, Ky. — For those in and around the Kentucky football program, it has become an obsession.
The Wildcats and their fans can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop talking about it, can’t stop agonizing over it. It’s gone on too long — 30 consecutive losses to Florida — and it’s time to end.
That’s been the anticipation in Lexington going all the way back to the summer, when everyone first started pointing to this game. Now, tonight, a frenzied sellout crowd will jam into Commonwealth Stadium with one thing in mind — seeing the Wildcats take down the Gators for the first time since 1986.
While the ’Cats and their fans have been consumed by The Streak all week, it has been an afterthought in Gainesville, if even that.
Several players said they weren’t even aware there was one.
“No, I wasn’t,” sophomore wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “Now I am (after being told about it by the media).”
“I actually didn’t know there was one,” redshirt freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon said.
Florida’s focus clearly is not on its long winning streak over Kentucky. It has been more on getting a young team with a young quarterback ready to step into a hostile road environment for the first time this season.
And it will be hostile. The Streak guarantees it.
“This is probably their Super Bowl,” Swain said. “If I lost to a team that long I’d try to win too. That would be a big win, to try not to let them win.”
UF coach Jim McElwain isn’t sure how his young team, which could start two true freshmen at the cornerback positions, will respond in the loud and angry atmosphere. The Gators are starting 14 freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores tonight.
The Gators are coming off an emotional win over Tennessee and an emotional few weeks where they’ve had to cope with the nine player suspensions and a hurricane that impacted two weeks.
“The early part of the season has been an emotional roller coaster for us,” McElwain said. “The way the last game ended (on the final play), all that kind of stuff. Now, the fun part comes when you’re able to go play at a sold-out arena on the road and kind of find out who you are a little bit.
“The biggest challenge is to see where the leadership is on our team, to see how they handle the hostile environment, to see how our young guys who haven’t really played in a conference game on the road handle it. It’s going to be a great night. I know this is what makes it fun, you go to a sold-out arena on the road. That’s why you do this stuff. This is fun. It’ll be interesting. It’ll be interesting to see where our team is.”
McElwain knows one place where his team is not — obsessing over The Streak like the ’Cats. Swain said the players and the coaches haven’t even talked about it this week.
McElwain was asked only once about it, and gave a typical answer in coach speak.
“I’ll let you guys talk about it,” he said. “Every year it’s different. You’ve got two different teams playing. So, right now, it’s 0-0.”
The Gators have spent their energy on more important things this week. Like getting the young players ready for their first road test, including quarterback Feleipe Franks.
Like continuing to try and find ways to make the offense more consistent, more productive.
Like working on tackling and stamina on defense, after getting run over in the fourth quarter a week ago.
Franks showed improvement from his first start to his second. McElwain is hoping he takes another step forward tonight — and that that trend will continue over the course of the season.
McElwain isn’t certain how his quarterback will play. But he has a good idea how he will handle the hostile environment. He expects Franks to be calm and poised, just like he’s been in the first two games.
“No. 1, he’s got confidence,” McElwain said. “He’s got confidence in himself, he’s got confidence in the guys around him. I think him growing up playing all the different sports and being the guy that had the ball on the mound, being the quarterback playing in championships, I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Who: No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Kentucky (3-0, 1-0)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
McElwain wants Franks and the Gators to be relaxed and have fun tonight. Instead of The Streak, he’s been stressing to his players how he always enjoyed playing on the road when he was a player.
“I’m kind of wired different,” he said. “I love it. I relished playing on the road. I truly enjoyed playing on the road more than I did at home. Why? I don’t know. I think it’s just using the energy of the opposition that hates you, for those three hours with that uniform on. The hostility, I don’t know how you can’t love it and I don’t know how you don’t play better on the road.
“And yet, it affects people differently. It didn’t matter what the sport was, my best games were always on the road. I think it was because I just enjoyed people getting after you. I think that’s the way it should be.”
There’s no doubt the Wildcats will be getting after the Gators tonight.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.