Kentucky is tough, but the game is Florida’s to win or lose

Florida has no chance to rest after its hard-hitting win over Utah. The SEC opener awaits with the Kentucky Wildcats coming to Gainesville, bringing a few familiar faces but a lot of new ones. Here is how the matchup breaks down based on what the teams showed us in Week 1.

What Florida did well

The Gators were efficient on offense but not as explosive as maybe you’d like to see. They were playing a tough team with a legit defense, though, so it’s hard to complain too terribly much about the latter point.

Of note is the fact UF allowed a very small number of negative plays. The Gators had just two rushes for a loss, one of one yard and the other for two. Anthony Richardson wasn’t sacked or stopped for a loss despite having defenders bearing down on him of a couple of occasions. What’s more, Florida’s rushes went for at least four yards a whopping 62% of the time. That’s a big credit to the offensive line.

The red zone was UF’s zone. The Gators found the end zone on all four trips inside the Utah 20-yard line. The Utes, meanwhile, settled for a field goal once, got stopped on a goal line stand, and threw a pick on three of their red zone appearances.

What Florida didn’t do well

A lot of the stats about efficiency and third down success that were in UF’s favor were in Utah’s favor to a similar degree. Running back Tavion Thomas and tight end Brant Kuithe largely did what they wanted to, and quarterback Cam Rising had increasing success as the game went along. At least, until he had a near-pick and an actual pick on the final series.

The Gators didn’t manage a sack and only had two run stops for loss themselves. You don’t expect too many sacks in a game with a pair of mobile quarterbacks, but Rising had far too much room to run a lot of the time.

UF also had a rough time of it in the field position game, averaging a start on their own 21 versus Utah on its own 31. Penalties during kickoff returns will do that to you.

What Kentucky did well

The Wildcats had a fairly efficient day of offense, largely from its passing game. They weren’t explosive for playing a mid-tier MAC team in Miami of Ohio, but Virginia Tech transfer WR Tayvion Robinson had some highlights.

The UK defense largely shined, though the RedHawks’ execution problems helped them out at times. Miami had an average success rate of 42%, but all the rest of their stats were bad. Kentucky’s athletic advantage really showed on this side of the ball.

What Kentucky didn’t do well

Despite the 37-13 final score, the Wildcats didn’t blow Miami (OH) off the field. The tape from the game doesn’t show that formidable a team in blue.

As shown by the success rate, Miami was able to move the ball. They had a surprising number of effective runs and open receivers, but with the latter, bad throws or bad catch attempts scuttled plays. A fair amount of that was UK simply playing vanilla and giving offensive players space knowing that their superior speed would clean up plays. They were also not doing a lot of their normal stuff due to being down their key edge rusher Jordan Wright, who will be available for the game this weekend. Even so, I wouldn’t call it an impressive defensive performance given the blandness.

Kentucky’s offensive line had a real rough go of it. Only 36% of Wildcat rushes went for at least 4 yards, and quarterback Will Levis was sacked four times. This, against a MAC defense. Levis is far from a pocket statue, which makes the sacks particularly troubling. Mobile quarterbacks shouldn’t get sacked that much, and Kentucky itself allowed just under two sacks per game all of last year playing mostly P5 defenses.

The bottom line

Any time in college football team has a big win, everyone naturally looks to see if there is a letdown the next week. There shouldn’t be one this week if Florida really is the No. 12 team in the country as the AP Poll now has them.

Kentucky has won two of the last four against Florida, including last year’s game. It’s the conference opener, and it is a night game. This is not some sleepy contest against a mediocre UK team in the Jefferson Pilot noon slot. Billy Napier should not have too much trouble getting his team up for this one.

Kentucky went 10-3 last year, which shows how far the program has come and also portends badly for them. While Mark Stoops has dragged the floor of the program upwards, it is still not in a place where it can reload. The Wildcats lost a handful of players to the NFL, including two offensive lineman. On top of personnel losses they also lost their offensive line coach to Alabama, and it showed with a very worrisome performance from the line last weekend.

The ‘Cats won’t be scraping for bowl eligibility, but they have definitely taken some steps backwards. Star running back Chris Rodriguez is still suspended barring a true last-minute change, this year’s transfer Robinson (Tayvion) has no one helping him at receiver like the now-graduated Josh Ali did for last year’s transfer Robinson (Wan’Dale), and Levis is largely the same player who struggled against UF’s pass defense a year ago.

A better Kentucky team beat a worse Florida team last year by a slim margin, needing a rare missed field goal return touchdown and a hailstorm of penalties from Florida offensive line to pull it out. A better Florida team facing a worse Kentucky team in the Swamp at night is and should be the favorite.

There should not be a need for Florida to do anything fancy to win this game. If the Gators follow their game plan while cleaning up some of the communication and execution issues from last week, they should be able to seal a win. It probably won’t look like the blowouts of old — UK is far too improved a program to fully expect that these days — but UF will have to give the game away through errors for the Wildcats to come away with the victory.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2