Tonight’s storylines: No. 9 Florida at Kentucky

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Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. (26) gave the Gators fits last year at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. They Wildcats still have talented backs to replace the departed Snell, so the UF defense will have to step up tonight. [Cyndi Chambers/Correspondent]

Tonight

Who: No. 9 Florida (2-0) vs. Kentucky (2-0)

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Line: Florida by 8 1/2.

Series record: Florida leads 51-18.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Florida seeks its seventh consecutive victory dating to last season. The Gators also aim to avenge last year’s 27-16 loss in The Swamp as they begin Southeastern Conference play. Kentucky seeks its first home win against the Gators since 1986 and consecutive series wins for the first time since 1976 and ’77.

New QB, same O

With starting quarterback Terry Wilson out for the season after injuring his knee last week, the Wildcats will have a new QB under center tonight, making his first SEC start. He is Sawyer Smith, a graduate transfer from Troy who did fine coming off the bench a week ago. His first pass coming off the bench against Eastern Michigan a week ago was a 54-yard TD strike to Ahmad Walker. He ended up completing five of nine passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Smith may have a little bit of a different skill set than Wilson, but the Gators are expecting the UK offense to remain pretty much the same. “I fully expect (Smith) to run their offense and do the things that they’ve done to win the games they’ve won the past two years,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.

Freshman starting at corner?

There’s a good chance the Gators will be starting a true freshman at cornerback in place of the injured CJ Henderson, either Kaiir Elam, Chestern Kimbrough or Jaydon Hill. All three saw extensive playing time in last week’s win over UT Martin. Elam had one of the defensive plays of the game — an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter. Starting a freshman isn’t the only option at Henderson’s spot. There’s a possibility that Trey Dean could move back to corner from the nickel position, with linebacker Amari Burney, a former safety, taking over at nickel. If the Gators do opt for a true freshman, the rest of the secondary seems fine with that. “They’ve come a long way since they’ve been here,” junior safety Donovan Stiner said. “They look up to CJ and Marco (Wilson), so they’ve been getting ready. They got a lot of playing time this last game, so I know their confidence is boosted.”

Another toughness test

The Gators failed the toughness test against the Wildcats last season, getting physically dominated on both lines of scrimmage. Where Kentucky hurt UF the most last year was in the running game. Led by running back Benny Snell, who is now in the NFL, the Wildcats gashed the Gators on the ground, rushing for 303 yards. Snell is gone, but the ‘Cats have two talented backs in Kavosiey Smoke and Asmin Rose and they will be running behind a big, physical offensive line. “We weren’t fitting runs properly (in last year’s game),” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “They find creative ways to run the ball. Our guys up front have to do a great job of fitting their gap and having great gap integrity.

RESILIENT FRANKS

Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks bounced back from two interceptions against Miami with a near-perfect effort against UTM by completing 25 of 27 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. Through two games he’s 42 of 54 passing (78 and ranks sixth nationally in completion percentage. “He’s grown in a lot of ways,” Mullen said of his quarterback. “He’s done a good job of just managing, taking what the defense gives us and checking it down.”

KEY MATCHUP

Florida’s pass rush vs. Kentucky’s offensive line. The Gators enter the contest leading FBS schools with 15 sacks, including 10 in the opener against Miami. DL Jabari Zuniga leads the team with three while four others have at least 1.5 each. They face a veteran Wildcats line that has yielded just three sacks thus far. Pass protection is particularly important for Kentucky as junior transfer Sawyer Smith makes his first start at quarterback in place of injured Terry Wilson, who is out for the season after tearing his left patellar tendon last week against Eastern Michigan.

Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden vs. the Florida secondary: Whatever lineup the UF coaches decide to go with in the secondary, it seems inevitable that the three true freshmen cornerbacks, at least two of them, will see extensive playing time tonight. And it seems equally inevitable that at some point one of those three freshmen — Kaiir Elam, Chester Kimbrough and Jaydon Hill — will be matched up against junior UK wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr., the Wildcats’ best and most experienced playmaker on offense. Bowden is an explosive talent and a potential game changer. In the season opener two weeks ago, he reached the 1,000-yard receiving mark for his career. He needs only three more receptions to reach 100. The three freshmen corners more than held their own against the UT Martin receivers and all enter with some confidence. But this will be a whole different test for the young guys playing at a pressure position in their first SEC game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Florida: QB Feleipe Franks. The junior has thrown for at least 250 yards in both victories and four of the Gators’ last five contests. He was near-perfect in a 45-0 rout of UT Martin, completing his first 15 passes and 25 of 27 overall for 270 yards and two touchdowns.

Kentucky: WR Lynn Bowden. The versatile junior recently surpassed 1,000 career yards receiving and is three receptions from reaching 100 overall. The punt and kick returner is also a passing option out of the Wildcat formation with Wilson done for the season and little experience behind Smith. The former high school QB even completed a 32-yard pass to Wilson last week to set up Kentucky’s first TD.

FACTS & FIGURES

Florida will play without WR Kadarius Toney and CB CJ Henderson because of shoulder and ankle injuries, respectively. … The Gators have surpassed 500 yards of offense in four of their past six games. …. Florida’s 31-game winning streak was the fourth-longest in an uninterrupted series in NCAA history until Kentucky won last fall in Gainesville. … Kentucky coach Mark Stoops (38-39) can reach .500 career wins as a head coach.

Tonight’s game questions

• Will the Florida offensive line, which has given up only two sacks in two games, be able to protect quarterback Feleipe Franks?

• Can the Gators, who were gutted on the ground a year ago by UK, stifle the Wildcats’ running attack?

• Will UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bring the house against UK’s new starting quarterback?

• Can the Gators finally make something happen in the running game?

• How will the Florida secondary hold up without starting cornerback CJ Henderson?

See Monday’s sports section for Andreu’s answers

Andreu’s pick

Florida 24, Kentucky 19

(Season record: 2-0)


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

4 COMMENTS

  1. It really seems weird not seeing any comments on game day so I’ll say Florida by two touchdowns. I don’t know if Tom Sawyer will finish the game but he’s going to have a lot of grass on his jersey and he’s gonna be sore tomorrow from getting sacked so often.

    • It’s beyond weird, Jack — it’s pathetic. In context, it’s 1535 out here in Texas, so under two hours to game time and there’s a grand total of 3 posts against only 216 views so far. I’m glad to see you, Joe, and HB nonetheless. I don’t know which Gator team will show up tonight; if it’s the one we’re all hoping for it should be no contest regardless of how much GatorSports hypes Kentucky. To my way of thinking, they should be ranked if they’re that good. If the Gators come out with no sense of urgency, I think it will be a long evening but we should win anyway.

      Perhaps this Pay to Play thing was just a harbinger to shut this sight down for lack of interest?

  2. Hope to see the OL step up and open holes more consistently. Think it was OcalaRob who said elsewhere that the RB’s need to hit the holes and not dance. Agree. If that happens and FF is simply solid, Gators should win without much drama.