The goal is not to just be competitive with the big boys.
The goal is to beat the big boys.
And a big boy comes to Kroger Field on Saturday night. The Florida Gators are ranked 10th in the AP Top 25. They are the defending SEC East champions. Two weeks ago, they went toe-to-toe with the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide before losing 31-29. The Gators own 16 straight wins over Kentucky in Lexington. As the visitor, Florida’s last loss to UK was in 1986.
To be sure, Kentucky has proven it can compete with the Gators. Before UK’s 34-10 loss in Gainesville last year, the combined score of the two teams’ previous three games was Cats 75, Gators 73. In 2017, Florida won 28-27 in Lexington. In 2018, Kentucky won 27-16 in Gainesville. In 2019, Florida won 29-21 in Lexington.
Overall, however, Florida is the much more successful program. And that’s a significant understatement. The Sunshine State is awash in high school football talent. Steve Spurrier took advantage, winning a national championship as Gators coach in 1996. Urban Meyer coached the Gators to national titles in 2006 and 2008. Current coach Dan Mullen has shown he has the potential to return Florida to the top in the not-too-distant future.
Kentucky football aspires to such success. And the Cats are progressing. They’ve been to five straight bowl games with three straight wins. They won 10 games in 2018. Mark Stoops is 52-50 overall, the first UK coach with a winning record since Blanton Collier. Stoops has won 26 SEC games, the most in school history. The 2021 NFL Draft saw six Kentucky players selected, including the 19th overall pick.
Still, Kentucky isn’t where it wants to be. Not yet. Under Stoops, UK has beaten South Carolina seven of its last eight meetings. It has beaten Missouri six of the last seven. It has five straight victories over Vanderbilt. And it has split its last four games with Rocky Top rival Tennessee. But Kentucky is 1-7 vs. Florida and 0-8 vs. Georgia, the two teams at the top of the SEC East food chain. Florida reached the SEC title game in 2015, 2016 and 2020. Georgia did it in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
And then there’s that thing of not being able to beat the Gators in Kentucky’s own backyard.
“It would mean a lot, especially for the season and to show the fans that we are elite, we are an elite team,” tight end Brenden Bates said after Tuesday’s practice. “Especially to do that in front of all the fans. Kroger Field is already packed out. To do that in front of them would mean a lot to me.”
Actually, Florida is the first of three straight titan tests for these Cats. LSU comes to Kroger Field on Oct. 9. The following Saturday, Kentucky visits No. 2-ranked Georgia in Athens.
It starts Saturday, however. Can the Cats beat the Gators? They can. Florida is formidable but not unbeatable.
To get the breakthrough win, Kentucky must first break its turnover habit. The quality of competition helped the Cats overcome their mistakes the first four games. That won’t be the case Saturday. The Gators are too good.
Kentucky’s offense must also hit the big play. Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham loves the high-risk/high-reward approach. Because of that, the Gators can be susceptible to long-gainers. Despite losing 38-14 last Saturday, Tennessee completed passes of 75, 47, 37 and 22 yards last week. UK quarterback Will Levis is capable of doing the same.
Last but not least, the Cats must control a Gators rushing attack that is averaging 322 yards per game, third-best in the nation. Consider that Florida rushed for 245 yards against Alabama, averaging nearly six yards per attempt.
“We will have our hands full,” Stoops said.
Still, if Kentucky wants to be considered among the nation’s best programs, it must beat the best programs. Starting Saturday.
No. 10 Florida at Kentucky
When: 6 p.m.
Records: Florida 3-1 (1-1 SEC), UK 4-0 (2-0 SEC)