By Sun staff writer Robbie Andreu and Sun correspondent Graham Hall
Who: No. 20 Florida (1-1, 1-0 SEC) at Kentucky (3-0, 1-0)
When: 7:30 p.m. today
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Line: Florida opened a 5 ½ favorite, line today is UF by 2.
Series Record: Florida leads 50-17.
Three decades (and counting?)
To say the Gators have Kentucky’s number is an understatement. It’s been three decades since the Wildcats pulled out a victory over Florida, and many UF players seemed aware of how Kentucky views the streak. “It’s like their Super Bowl,” decreed Florida wide receiver Freddie Swain. Furthermore, UF tight ends coach Greg Nord was in Lexington in 1986, coaching in blue and white the last time UK downed Florida, and he knows how badly the Wildcats need a win over the Gators. “I don’t know if I had any kids yet or not. Now I have grandkids, so it’s been a long time,” Nord said. “When I played there, we had a little bit of success when I was playing, but there haven’t been a lot of happy Wildcats when the Gators come into town.”
Gators defense possibly without key playmaker
Although the Wildcats don’t boast the caliber of offensive playmakers that Tennessee and Michigan did, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is considered to be one of the better recruiters and developers of talent in the country. Meaning the Gators defense will have to prepare for a multitude of unheralded weapons, and it’s likely they’ll be without one of their defensive leaders. Senior Duke Dawson remains in the concussion protocol, leaving his status in question for Saturday’s bout. If he can’t go, Florida will turn to Joseph Putu or true freshman Marco Wilson at the nickel position, which results in an increased lack of experience in the secondary. Facing a dual-threat quarterback in Stephen Johnson, Florida’s defense can’t let its guard down if Dawson isn’t able to provide a veteran presence.
Update (1:07 p.m.): Gators Football announced via its Twitter account that Dawson will play tonight.
Wildcats in the driver’s seat
If Florida hopes to keep alive its dream of returning to Atlanta, a victory over Kentucky will be a necessity. The Wildcats opened SEC play with a 23-13 victory at South Carolina, putting them atop the SEC Eastern Division standings. Considering the win streak won’t guarantee future success, Florida coach Jim McElwain consistently stressed the Gators won’t take their undefeated opponent lightly. Because wins against Georgia and Tennessee won’t matter if Kentucky runs the table the rest of the way. “They beat a team on the road that is in our side of the conference. That is huge because now you start the thing about holding the serve at home,” said McElwain, when asked about the Wildcats’ stature. “When you look at the schedule as it lays out, it’s pretty favorable from that standpoint.”
Franks looks to take the next step
The final heave from Feleipe Franks to Tyrie Cleveland gave UF a dramatic victory, and with it came the return of Florida’s bravado. In the week after the win over the Volunteers, Florida’s players appear to have their confidence restored to the level it was in Fall camp, but Saturday’s showdown with Kentucky has the potential to make-or-break Florida’s season. While he corrected the ball-security issues from the season opener, the Gators need more out of Franks, who didn’t complete a pass that traveled more than 10 yards in the air until the decisive final moments. Now that Franks is at his most-confident, the match-up with Kentucky has the chance to set the tone offensively for the Gators. If Franks regresses, UF could be back to evaluating the future of the quarterback position.
‘Cats will create confusion
Mark Stoops is a defensive coach, and a big part of his plan for tonight’s game will center around the inexperience of redshirt freshman Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, who is making only his third start and first on the road. Stoops has a track record of mixing things up nicely in the secondary in an attempt to confuse inexperienced quarterbacks and get them to make poor decisions that lead to bad plays and turnovers. Franks will get one look, then the Wildcats will shift into something different just before the snap. UF coach Jim McElwain is aware of that. “They do an outstanding job of disguising on defense. In fact, their defensive coordinator was actually with us at Michigan State as a GA. He’s really good at knowing what confuses guys. We’re going to have to take that out of Feleipe’s hands and let him play a little bit,” McElwain said.
Franks faces a secondary that ranks next to last in the SEC in pass defense (289.7 yards per game). Opponents have completed 64.2 percent of attempts against the Wildcats, creating a big opportunity for Franks. Florida might have to throw with Kentucky allowing an SEC-low 57 yards per game on the ground.
More touches for Toney, Davis?
One of the most promising things to come out of last week’s win over Tennessee from an offensive perspective was the impact two true freshmen made. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney caught four passes and created quite a buzz with his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. Davis electrified the crowd with a 72-yard run that unfortunately ended with him fumbling just before crossing the goal-line in the fourth quarter. Davis did not return to the game, but he’ll be back in the playing rotation tonight as the Gators continue to try to find and develop playmakers on offense. Toney and Davis have shown they have a chance to provide the kind of dynamic UF is looking for. McElwain said the key now is giving them more, but at the same time make sure they don’t put too much on them too soon. It will be interesting to see how many touches the two get tonight.
Wrap ’em up
Given all the missed and broken tackles against Tennessee the two previous seasons, the Gators put an emphasis on tackling heading into last week’s game. It didn’t matter. The results were the same. The Gators whiffed all over the field, especially in the secondary, especially safety Chauncey Gardner. Knowing they will be facing a dangerous dual-threat quarterback (Stephen Johnson) and a tough and talented tailback (Benny Snell), the defense worked on tackling all week again and are expecting a different result tonight. But until they prove they can tackle better, it’s a troubling issue on the Florida defense.
Today’s game questions
• Will Feleipe Franks and the Florida offense take a step forward, or will it be backward?
• Can Florida contain dual-threat quarterback Stephen Johnson?
• How will the young secondary hold up against a potent UK passing attack?
• Will the Gators make anything positive happen on special teams?
• Can the UF offense generate any kind of ground game against a UK defense that gives up few rushing yards?
See Sunday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers
Florida 16 (one TD, three FGs), Kentucky 14
Florida running game vs. the Kentucky run defense:
This is a matchup that, at least on paper, looks like a clear mismatch in the Wildcats’ favor. Kentucky leads the SEC in rushing defense (57.0 yards a game), while Florida is 12th in rushing offense (89.5). This is a strong UK defensive front that is anchored in the middle by nose guards Naquez Pringle and Matt Elam and backed up by a middle linebacker, senior Courtney Love, who is a tackling machine. The Wildcats shut down South Carolina’s running game a week ago, giving up only 61 yards rushing, then brought pressure against quarterback Jake Bentley. UK will try to execute a similar plan tonight. The Gators, of course, have struggled on the ground. They finally broke a run last week, but it ended badly, with true freshman Malik Davis fumbling into the end zone after streaking 72 yards. The Gators will try to get something going on the ground so it can help set up the play-action passes. But it’s going to be difficult. Based on the numbers, there’s a good chance the Gators will be running smack into a big, blue wall most of the night.