So a coach Kentucky almost never beats is now in charge of a team the Cats have not defeated since Ronald Reagan lived in the White House.
That is not likely to mean anything good for the Wildcats going forward. UK’s window for ending its embarrassing 31-game losing streak against Florida could be closing now that Mullen has relocated to the Sunshine State.
With 17 starters back from the team that had a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead on Florida a season ago before melting down catastrophically, the Cats should feel a high degree of urgency when they visit Gainesville for Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. kickoff with Mullen and the Gators.
History says when Florida has a coach capable of maximizing the inherent advantages the Gators program enjoys — starting with one of the nation’s most bountiful, in-state recruiting bases — Kentucky has a difficult time even being competitive with UF.
In ongoing futility since the Cats last beat Florida in 1986, only eight of the 31 UK defeats to UF have been decided by one touchdown or less.
Of those, six came when Florida was led by relative coaching mediocrities Ron Zook (two, 41-34 in 2002; 24-21 in 2003); Jim McElwain (two, 14-9 in 2015; 28-27 last year); Galen Hall (one, 24-19 in 1988); and Will Muschamp (one, 36-30 in triple overtime in 2014).
Conversely, in the 18 combined years when national championship-winning coaches Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer were running the Florida program, Kentucky only played UF a close game twice — a 24-20 loss to Spurrier in 1993 (the seven interceptions game) and a 45-37 defeat to Meyer in 2007 (the Andre Woodson/Tim Tebow shootout).
At his weekly news conference, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops acknowledged Monday that ending the losing streak against Florida remains a UK program goal. But Stoops said the current Cats players are only responsible for what they do going forward, not what has happened in the past.
“Our concentration needs to be on what we have to do this year,” Stoops said. “(The 2018 Kentucky-Florida outcome) is about what we do this year, how we play, how we prepare, are we making the right plays at the right time.”
A season ago, in a game now seared into the nightmares of The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan, Kentucky finally seemed on its way to slaying the Florida dragon.
For one of the few times in the history of the losing streak, Kentucky did not appear to be at an athletic disadvantage against Florida. Early in the fourth quarter, UK led 27-14.
Alas, the game got away in the most gut-wrenching manner imaginable. The Cats gave up what became the winning touchdown pass to a Florida receiver uncovered at the line of scrimmage. Inexplicably, it was the second TD Kentucky surrendered in the game to an undefended Gators wideout.
Supplying the final bit of torture to Cats backers, after Kentucky fell behind by one point, quarterback Stephen Johnson drove the Wildcats into field goal position — only to see a holding penalty push the Cats outside the range of place-kicker Austin MacGinnis.
It was a game UK should have won.
Yet whether last season’s outcome is more motivating for the Wildcats or the Gators in 2018 will be fascinating to see.
During the 31-game losing streak, Kentucky has only twice followed up a close loss against Florida with another competitive defeat the following season.
In a perverse way, close wins over UK have seemed to provide more motivation for Florida to prove a point the following season than for Kentucky to do so.
UK’s four-point loss to UF in 1993 was followed by a 73-7 beat down in 1994.
Kentucky’s eight-point defeat in 2007 yielded a 63-5 shellacking by the Gators in 2008.
On Monday, Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was asked about UF’s 31-game winning streak over UK.
“It’ll be 32 after Saturday,” he said.
Long term, conventional wisdom expects Mullen to be nearer the Spurrier/Meyer level at Florida than the more middling results produced by the other Gators coaches of recent vintage.
If Kentucky is going to snap the embarrassing losing skid against Florida anytime soon, it would behoove the Cats to do it before Mullen has time to get the Gators’ program hitting on all cylinders again.
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