Time: 7:30 ET/6:30 CT
TV: SEC Network (Jordan Rodgers, Cole Cubelic, Tom Hart)
Watch Online: WatchESPN
Spread: Gators opened as 4 point favorites over the ‘Cats, but the line settled at 1.5.
O/U: 44 (via OddsShark)
The Gators and Wildcats first played in 1917 and sporadically throughout the next few decades but the annual rivalry did not begin until 1967. The Gators lead the overall series 50-17 and come in on 30-game winning streak against the ‘Cats which is the currently the longest such streak in Division 1.
The red hot Kentucky Wildcats come in 3-0 (1-0) after shutting down South Carolina 23-13 in Columbia last week. The Cats held the Gamecocks to 54 rushing yards and had a balanced approach on offense that was too much for the young Carolina team.
The #20 Florida Gators come to Lexington 1-1 (1-0) after a beating Tennessee with a thrilling walk-off Hail Mary. The Gators struggled offensively through three quarters, but looked to put the game away in the fourth quarter before catching the turnover bug. After a fierce Tennessee comeback, Feleipe Franks saved the day with his 63-yard bomb as time expired to give the Gators a 26-20 win.
#20 Florida Gators 1-1 (1-0)
After two games against formidable opponents, the Florida offense is still reminiscent of the two previous years. They are struggling to find an identity and are constantly putting the defense in bad spots, but all hope is not lost. The offensive line played much better against Tennessee than against Michigan and although the team is still without stars Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett, young play makers are starting to emerge. The leading receiver, sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, caught the game-winner and freshman running back Malik Davis almost put the game away in the 4th with his 74-yard run before fumbling at the goal line. The Gators totaled 380 yards offensively, but only found the end zone once on offense before the Hail Mary. The 3-and-outs in the 2nd and 3rd quarters and the ill-timed turnovers in the 4th left the young defense on the field in consecutive possessions and it began to show with poor tackling and big plays by the Volunteers, directly leading to the Vols’ comeback. To beat the Wildcats, the Gators will have to be more successful on third down, especially late in the game to ensure the defense can compete at a high level for four quarters. Starting fast, getting points early and putting the offense in good field position early will ultimately determine how closely the Florida staff can follow the game plan.
In his weekly press conference, Coach McElwain said there were six critical plays Franks would love to have back and that the mistakes come with the territory of starting a red shirt freshman quarterback in the SEC. Now the feat is elevating the play around him and putting him in good positions so that the six errors become fewer and fewer each week. The offensive line has yet to prove they can provide a push running between the tackles, but adding wrinkles like the jet-sweep to Davis and the quick passes to Josh Hammond and Kadarius Toney proves that McElwain and Nussmeier are trying to creatively mask the deficiencies up front. The Kentucky rush defense is currently giving up only 57 yards per game (3rd in D1) and used it to their advantage to make South Carolina one-dimensional. If the Gators are not able to run the ball on the stout Wildcat front, the Franks and the Gators could have the same struggles Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks had last week. Until the offensive line truly becomes a strength of the offense, the coaching staff will have to continue being creative to make things easy for the young signal caller.
The young Gator defense has given up 400+ yards in both games this season (something they only did three times in all of 2016), but most of that can be attributed to the lack of offensive production. Most of the big plays and total yards accumulated by the Wolverines and Vols came in the second half when the Florida defense was forced to be on the field for consecutive possessions. Quick turnovers and stalled drives leave the Gators ranked 104th in time of possession and until the offense can score points and sustain drives to spell the defense, my guess is the youngsters will continue to give up big plays late.
Kentucky Wildcats 3-0 (1-0)
After South Carolina star Deebo Samuel took the opening play 68 yards to the end zone, it looked as if Kentucky was in for an uphill battle under the lights in Columbia. Impressively, Mark Stoops and the coaching staff were able to calm the team on the way to 20 unanswered points with a suffocating performance from the defense and timely plays on offense. The Wildcat offense only produced 358 yards against the gamecocks but were 9 of 16 on third down and had a balanced approach including clutch moments from the established play makers.
The Wildcats are led on offense by backfield duo Stephen Johnson and Benny Snell Jr. The two accounted for 345 (96%) of the offense’s total output and will be expected to do so again against the Gators. Johnson’s ability as a true dual threat quarterback make him hard to pin down and the Wildcats need the same production out of #15 as he provided last week (7 rushes for 74 yards). Snell Jr. is the same battering ram from a year ago and has seen a bulk of the carries this year at running back. On the young season his yard per carry average is low (3.8), but he is the kind of back that gets better as the game goes on. Kentucky could have success running the ball against the Gators if the Florida offense puts its defense in poor situations like it did late in the Tennessee game. The ‘Cats may be hesitant to test the Gators young secondary (5 INT, 2 TD), and will have to be aware of the Gator pass rush that has yet to truly come alive. Johnson protects the ball well and will need to rely on his play makers on the perimeter, veterans CJ Conrad and Garrett Johnson, to take advantage of the youth and inexperience in the Gator secondary.
The true strength of this Kentucky team on the young season has been their front seven and their ability to stop the run in particular. Even though South Carolina is the only P5 offense the ‘Cats D has faced, the 57 yards per game they give up makes them an asset to the defensive game plan. With the struggles the Gators have had blocking in the run game, the Kentucky front seven, led by linebackers Courtney Love and Josh Allen, will be licking their chops to have a go at the struggling Gator offensive line. Reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week Derrick Baity has the ability to be left on an island and help out in run support. His one-on-one match-ups with emerging Gator receiver Tyrie Cleveland could produce a turning point in this game.
Keys to the Game
Kentucky Rush Defense vs. Florida Rush Offense
The ‘Cats come in confident after shutting down Carolina for 54 total rushing yards. The Gators offensive line has struggled all season to move the ball, especially against the dominant front of Michigan (11 yards), but rebounded with some big plays on the ground against Tennessee (168 yards). The Kentucky front will give the Gators issues, but have the linemen grown up enough to establish some kind of consistent running game?
Florida Pass Rush vs. Stephen Johnson
The Gators only have six sacks on the season, but have had six different defenders get to the quarterback. The Gators have the luxury of rotating up to seven defensive ends and four defensive tackles and will need to disrupt Stephen Johnson in the passing game. The Gator secondary gets most of the praise for their 5 takeaways, but each one started up front with Taven Bryan or Jordan Sherit pushing an offensive lineman in the quarterback’s lap. The ‘Cats will have to protect Johnson for him to be successful in the pocket and the Gators will have to play disciplined in their lanes for when Johnson uses his legs. Is this the game the Gator defensive ends finally eat or do they tire out chasing Johnson around all game?
Florida “Critical” Offensive Mistakes
If Gator quarterback Feleipe Franks can continue to make strides and cut his six critical errors down to 2 or 3, the Gator offense may be able to sustain a few more drives early, get some points on the board and let their defense win the game for them. The three turnovers against the Vols killed what little momentum they had and Kentucky has proven to be an opportunistic defense It seems most pundits and even Las Vegas have little faith in the week-to-week growth of the Gator offense. Can they be competent enough to spell the defense?
Injuries and News
- Kentucky All-SEC linebacker Jordan Jones will be out again after missing the South Carolina game with a shoulder injury.
- Gator All-SEC corner Duke Dawson has been out all week in concussion protocol and is questionable for Saturday’s game.
Everything is fine, I will be playing this upcoming Saturday against UK .— Duke Dawson Jr. (@7upya__) September 18, 2017
- Florida tight end Deandre Goolsby is expected to be back and playing.
- The Gators are still without the nine suspended players, including stars Antonio Callaway and Jordan Scarlett.
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It is assumed the Cats will feature their chrome helmets, but the team has yet to release a formal uniform combination.
The Gators will rock the classic orange lids, white tops and orange bottoms.
The Gators continue to grow on offense and are confident after the finish last Saturday. The reflection period is over and the coaches can now adapt the game plan around Franks and the offensive line. Kentucky defense will give the Gators fits up front, but the play makers on the outside produce for the offense. Kentucky offense will become one-dimensional after they struggle to run and the pass rush and secondary force 2-3 turnovers in the second half. In this rivalry, the Gators have proven they can win with unproven teams and will need to do so again Saturday. ‘Cats keep it close but Gators prevail to 31 straight.