Florida squares off with Kentucky in the SEC home opener for the Gators. The Wildcats come in 1-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1987, 2-1 overall. The Wildcats were routed in their season opener by top ten Louisville but the Wildcats have piled up the points in their last two games and there are some elements in place for an upset.
First the Gators are coming off an emotional win. Secondly, Kentucky is throwing the ball very well to a group of skilled guys who could cause some problems. Kentucky is also very good on special teams and capable of stealing some points in the return game. Now throw in the fact that the Wildcats have nothing to lose while hoping the Gators are looking ahead to the murderer’s row schedule of Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia in consecutive games. But the ingredient that is missing for the upset remedy is home field. Perhaps if this game was in Lexington things could be dicey. The Gators have had their share of close calls at Lexington including the 1993 “Doering’s got a touchdown” game that propelled UF to the SEC title. Florida hasn’t lost a game at home in the Urban Meyer era and the talent gap is wide enough for Florida to avoid an upset and get it done this weekend.
Kentucky Statistic: One fourth of the rushing attempts against Kentucky this season have gone for first downs, including 22 gains of over 10 yards through three games.
My thoughts on the Marcus Thomas situation: Marcus Thomas being out is huge for the Gators especially against the physical “run first “teams coming up. With Thomas out of the lineup, Ray McDonald will go inside after his best performance of the season against Tennessee. McDonald who has been moving inside in pass rush situations is comfortable in traffic and should be solid. Thomas was dominant versus the double team and that will be hard to replace. You can bet McDonald will see more of that for sure. Steven Harris must get back to last year’s level to spell McDonald and Joe Cohen. Stopping the run is the first goal of the defense and this has to hurt just a bit. Auburn and Georgia are the two best run teams left on UF’s schedule.
What do I think will happen?: First, I think it is good news that there has been no immediate word from the University of Florida or from Coach Urban Meyer. If this was a cut and dry issue it would be out in front of the media for everyone to see. I think Thomas’s mom may have jumped the gun on giving out information and that only compounded the situation. In talking to my sources and the folks I trust, I not only think Marcus Thomas will be back this season, but it may be sooner than later. Thomas could be back as soon as the Alabama game. Urban Meyer is still figuring out how to deal with this situation and ONLY HE HAS ALL THE FACTS. In case you were wondering there have been appeals won by student athletes at the University of Florida and there have been athletes who had to re-test on the basis that it was going to help their appeal. All of that could or could not be a factor in the decision to play Marcus Thomas. The fact that Urban Meyer has preached discipline since day one when he got here and the fact that he has raised the team GPA to its highest known number in football history gives him the authority in my book to go to bat for this kid with Jeremy Foley, the athletic department and the University. Like I said, I have a hunch Thomas will be back sooner than later and that could bring some criticism. Urban Meyer and his program have already earned the right to deal with discipline in there way because of his track record. There have been a lot of changes to many policies but I do believe if Thomas was a victim of “double jeopardy” then missing half the season so far (2 out of 4 games) is enough penalty for one athlete. Prediction: Thomas will play vs. LSU.
How has Kentucky managed to get to 2-1 so far this season?: Andre Woodson has benefited from being coached by Randy Sanders and the fact that Kentucky is letting it all hang out. The staff on offense is coaching like a staff that has nothing to lose and they have found some passing game numbers with some talented receivers. Andre Woodson has thrown nine touchdowns but the one interception is the stat that impresses me most. Kentucky has struggled to throw the football since Hal Mumme left and it looks like they are off to a good start. Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons lead are the two best in Kentucky’s three wide receiver attack. Kentucky is balanced on first down with the running of Rafael Little and the passing of Woodson. Lyons is a guy who has caught two touchdowns in three straight games. Defensively the Wildcats have two or three good players but overall they are not a strong unit. Wesley Woodyard at weakside linebacker and Marcus Mclinton at free safety are two solid players. The defense has proven opportunistic by causing six fumbles already this season.
Gator offensive statistic: Efficiency is the key word with the new clock rules. The Gators are averaging six plays per drive which means very few three-and-outs and that’s good for the defense. UF had 11 possessions last week against Tennessee, scored three times, missed two field goals and ran out clock at the end of the game.
The Gator offense comes into this game knowing they can run the ball. Kentucky is giving up 5.2 yards per carry an UF will look to get 35-plus totes out of their running game. Depending on how the game goes, that may not mean 22 for DeShawn Wynn but more like 15 for 100 yards. I see at least five big running plays of over 15 yards for the Gators. The offensive line has done a good job so far and is ahead of schedule. One thing that helped them last week was the running game and play action. They need to expect some exotic blitzes this week as Kentucky will try to manufacture some pressure to create turnovers. The Wildcats like to bring pressure off the edge with both outside linebackers. Florida’s passing game was very good in the second half last weekend with veterans Bubba Caldwell and Dallas Baker stepping up. Look for UF to get Jarred Fayson involved this week as well as more from Cornelius Ingram. He had a key play in the game on Saturday and has tremendous upside. If the Gators are playing well Tim Tebow will throw some this week while I think you could see Brandon James in the backfield depending on the game and number of snaps for the Gator offense.
Gator Defensive Statistic: The Gators have given up 32 rushing yards total in the first half this season.
Defensively, this is a good test for the Gators coming off the big win against Tennessee. Some folks think UF’s secondary can be had, if they can get the ball off against the front four. Well, first and foremost, getting the ball off is going to be very tough if Ray McDonald keeps showing his old form and the development of Derrick Harvey and Jermaine Cunningham as threats in the pass rush continues to develop. The corners will face a three-wide spread attack featuring Kentucky’s best athletes. Ryan Smith and Reggie Lewis will get a chance again to earn some respect in the conference as legit cover guys. With the spread attack of three receivers you could see Reggie Nelson locked up on one of the Wildcats two best in Burton or Lyons. Opponents have only generated seven sacks this season but one of the teams was 1-AA Texas State. The Cats will also use a quick passing game which seems to be the way offensive coordinators will want to attack this fierce Gator defense. If the Gator secondary can sit on some short routes and the line can bat some balls down in the throwing lane a shutout could be in order. The run game is mostly one back although last season Rafael Little had a big second half against the Gators. They will slip out a draw play to offset the pass rush so Siler and company will have to mind their P’s and Q’s.
Meyer Statisitic: Florida has a 10 game home win streak which is third best in the country and Urban Meyer is 30-2 at home as a head coach and unbeaten at Florida.
Florida is about to enter a stretch of four straight games vs. top 20 opponents. Three of those teams are currently in the top ten and one could be number one (Auburn) when they play them. It is imperative to enter that gauntlet with confidence and with good health. Last year Meyer took the starters out against Kentucky only to put them back in to send a message to the reserves. I don’t think he will have to send the starters back in this season. Questions like ‘How much do you use Harvin? Does Chris Leak play much in the second half? And Do you back off Wynn to get him fresh?’ Are all very good questions and it remains to be seen how Meyer will approach this. You would like to think the Gators can handle Kentucky at home but you also have to guard against let down and sloppy play. UF must be sound in the special teams this week against a good unit in Kentucky. They need to get there 200 yards on the ground and maximize there red zone opportunities. But most of all they need to win, stay healthy and stay hungry for the road ahead. Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia are all physical smash mouth teams. UF’s strength is its defense against the run which means UF will force those four quarterbacks to beat them and I am not sure they can especially with the Gators at home in The Swamp for three of them and in the Gator Bowl (Georgia), where Florida plays so well for the other.
Kentucky Memories: I know this sounds ridiculous but you cannot overlook the Wildcats. I remember being on kickoff return in 1991 at home leading 28-26 (I was an up back) and knowing UF history and the “wait till next year slogan” thinking to myself man if they squib kick it off my facemask and recover I will go down in history as the guy who cost UF it’s first perfect SEC season. Luckily they kicked it deep and we drove it down the field and won. The celebration included SEC champion’s hat that I still have today. I know it’s just Kentucky but think about 1991,’93, 2003 and remember you have to give your best every week in the SEC or you might just get nipped.
Gator statistic: UF leads the country with 62% on third down conversions. That statistic tells a lot about UF results through three games and how much this offense has improved. Leak is dialed in and the offensive line is ahead of the curve. Mullen showed last week he would stay with the ground game and it paid off for him with Wynn and the play action pass. Defensively the Gators must adjust to quick passing teams and continue to play with a chip on their shoulder. I look for Florida to win easily because Meyer’s teams play well at home and this team has worked to hard to give away a chance at putting up a number. The Gators will take care of business this week and then move on to the “Gauntlet” in which no team in the country will play four tougher games this season. UF wins 42-9.
Catch College Kickoff on Sun Sports this Friday at a special time 5:30 p.m. There will be re-airs, go to http://www.sunsportstv.com for the listings. Also join Whit Watson, David Steele, Nat Moore, Todd Lewis, Steve Babik and me for Gator Postgame Saturday night immediately following the game. The Brady Ackerman Show airs Monday through Friday from 7-10 a.m. on ESPN Radio in Gainesville and Ocala.