Gators go on road for SEC opener

Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky., home stadium for the Kentucky Wildcats. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The first game, played at a neutral site, had the look and feel of a bowl game. The second game, played against an outmanned FBS opponent, had the atmosphere of a preseason game.

Now, finally, the real season begins for the Florida Gators.

The SEC season.

It’s a whole different world now than what the Gators experienced in those first two games.

“It’s definitely going to be a different environment and I think guys will be excited just to finally get into SEC play,” senior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “It counts for real now in regards to our SEC ranking, so I think guys are going to know the sense of urgency and the level of play that we have to play with is definitely higher than it was before.”

Only moments after the blowout win over UT Martin last Saturday night, UF coach Dan Mullen started stressing how different things needed to be this week with the start of the SEC schedule looming.

There needs to be better focus, especially on the small details, a sense of urgency to prepare and perform at a higher level and more intensity all around.

“It’s got to crank up about 10 notches this week,” Mullen said.

The Gators apparently did not crank it up high enough for last year’s SEC opener against Kentucky. And it cost them. Florida came out flat, UK came out with all kinds of intensity and fire, and the Wildcats pulled off a stunning 27-16 win in The Swamp that ended UF’s 31-game winning streak in the series.

Mullen said that loss will not be a factor in tonight’s game, an indication the Gators aren’t using that painful defeat as motivation.

“I don’t see how it has much effect on this year’s game,” Mullen said. “They did a good job (and) won the game last year. We grew a lot from that as a team within our program and where we are. Besides, ‘Hey, this is what they did to stop us or this is what they ran on offense and defense and here’s how they made some plays, this caused us some problems, here’s some things we did well.’ That’s about what we take out of last year’s game.”

In last year’s game, the Wildcats were stronger mentally and physically. They won both lines of scrimmage. UK’s offensive line pulled off a big win against the UF defensive front, gutting the Gators for 303 yards on the ground.

Of those 303 yards, 280 were produced by two players — running back Benny Snell (175 yards) and quarterback Terry Wilson (105). Neither will be present tonight. Snell is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Wilson is out for the season after injuring his knee last week against Eastern Michigan.

Even with Snell and Wilson gone, the Gators are still bracing for a physical, downhill running attack from the ’Cats.

“Last year was last year, that doesn’t affect this year,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “But we recognize they’re a physical team and that they’re going to bring the physicality in their run game. So we’ve got to understand that part of the game is important to winning.”

On the other side of the ball, the Florida offense will be facing an attacking UK defense that will try to duplicate last year’s performance against the Gators. The ’Cats shut down UF’s running game, then harassed quarterback Feleipe Franks with steady pressure. He was sacked twice and threw a costly interception.

Regardless of what happened then, Franks said he will be taking the same approach to this game that he does for every game.

“If you’ve got to tell somebody to get excited about a game, then something is already wrong,” he said. “We have a team full of guys that are excited to go out there and play Saturday no matter who we’re playing — away, home, SEC or not SEC. You should be excited to get out there.

“You never want to take that for granted, to go out there and play against a team on TV, let alone another SEC team. It’s fun. You should never take it for granted. I don’t think you should have to hype anybody up. It’s the next game, and I think that’s the most important game.”

In this case, it’s not just another game. It’s an SEC game — and it marks the start of the conference schedule. The real season begins.

“Your opening game in conference play is always a huge game,” Mullen said. “I know it will be a great challenge — a sold-out crowd, exciting atmosphere up there. We’re excited. That first conference game is always such a big one, where you try to find a way to get a win.”