Beating one opponent 28 times in a row is, uh, tough to do. It says something about the history of both Florida and Kentucky that the Gators have done just that, but Florida fans shouldn't puff their chests out too far without admitting a streak like that takes some luck, too.
Still, though, the length of the streak is more ridiculous than remarkable. By the time Will Muschamp made his departure from UF, he'd burned most of the trust of his fan base. There was one thing Muschamp never did, however: Lose to Kentucky. (Or Tennessee. He didn't do that, either.)
Enter Jim McElwain who, in his third game as Florida's head coach, is asked to defend a winning streak that dates back to the first year of his coaching career ... at Eastern Washington. Through up and downs, a full generation of Florida fans has always been able to say, "Well, we still beat Kentucky. Again."
But does Florida — or, really, does Kentucky — have what it takes to grab a win this Saturday? Last year, we saw it took some late-game heroics and a little bit of favor from the football gods for Florida to pull it off at home. This year, Florida doesn't have the luxury of defending The Streak in The Swamp, and that's one of the reasons the Gators have been placed on upset alert by a few writers and reporters.
This week I spoke with with Jon Hale, a (brand-new) UK beat reporter at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who showed me the secrets of what makes this year's Kentucky team such a threat. If UK couldn't do it last year, what's different this time around? The answer to that lies in the background and the tape.
A power-run Air Raid
Traditional Air Raid offenses come with a fast running back: If you have a back who boasts speed and catching ability as his strengths, he can be used as yet another receiving option in the passing game on short passes that still contain the potential to break a play open with smaller risk. That's common, but that won't be all of what we see from Kentucky. UK's Air Raid offense doesn't work quite like that.
When Mark Stoops was hired, he brought on Neal Brown who is, much like the East Carolina Air Raiders we examined last week, from the Mike Leach tree. He promised to bring a full-on spread offense to UK, and make the Wildcats a threat on offense to compliment Stoops' defensive knowledge. The decision seemed to show early payoffs as Kentucky went from being the 100th-ranked passing attack to the No. 65 passing attack in just one season, but Brown then bolted for Troy after being offered the Trojans' head coaching position. Rather than change philosophy, Stoops hired Shannon Dawson, previously the offensive coordinator under Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, with the main sales pitch being that Dawson would finally be able to call the plays at UK. (Holgorsen called plays at WVU.)
But there are a few key differences between a Neal Brown spread attack and a Shannon Dawson spread attack. One of those differences, something Kentucky has tried to implement right away, is in the run game. I'm sure Stoops enjoyed the offensive output he was getting from his passing attack with Brown as OC, but he was concerned with how moving to a spread would make his team less physical, and he saw that in the run game, which topped out at No. 79 nationally under Brown. With Dawson coming over, Stoops could keep the current spread system, but implement a style of it with more power running.
One way we've seen Kentucky do that so far is by lining up with running in mind. Most Air Raid attacks keep the field stretched pretty thin, but even early on we've seen Dawson call formation like the one above to help Kentucky have success running the ball in situations where everyone knows they're handing it off. Examples of that would be the first play of a new drive or sometime on third and short; situations where most teams know they can stack the box.
By using formations like the pistol (above), Kentucky not only allows the quarterback to stay in rhythm out of the shotgun, but it gives the running back two extra interior blockers for him to follow, not the traditional extra blockers on the end of the offensive line.
This gives Kentucky the abiilty to attempt power running style in a few ways, but mainly, it gives them the luxury of keeping a guard at the point of attack as opposed to pulling guards as we often see in spread running attack. By adding a second lead blocker, there's no need to risk a hole in your front five, and the entire trench can focus on pushing up the field as a unit to create the gap.
Now, you may be thinking, "Boom Williams doesn't look like a power back. He's a little guy with a ton of speed." And you're right. But a power rushing attack doesn't require a power back. A power running philosophy is determined by how the offense is lined up and the blocking scheme they work under.
Which brings us to our next point of emphasis:
Success in football lies within the smallest details. A big play or a successful play of any kind doesn't happen unless all of the moving parts do their job right. A good portion of that success can be determined before the ball is even snapped. Typically, offensive linemen in a spread offense are a bit slimmer and more athletic; they sacrifice sheer mass and strength for a little more mobility on screens, counter runs, and stretch plays.
But it's not only about how they look; it's also about how they line up.
This is a shot from last year's Florida-Kentucky game. It's a bit hard to see, but if you zoom in you'll see four players on the offensive line positioned with their hands at their sides, not on the ground. This isn't unusual for a spread offense, and Brown had most of his linemen (more specially, his guards) play with their hands up to make it easier when moving or shifting the trench left or right.
Most spread offenses like to take their handoffs and running plays to the outside which often requires one or two offensive linemen to move that way as well. Starting a play with your hands up may seem minuscule, but it assures there's none of the wasted motion that comes with getting out of a three-point stance1.
This year, as part of Dawson's "Return to Power" run game (I just made that up), his guards are in three-point stances pre-snap in most situations.
This screen cap is from Kentucky's touchdown run against South Carolina last week. You notice the left tackle in a two-point stance, but both the guards and the right tackle all have at least a hand in the ground. Since we'll soon see their first movement at the snap is to push the trenches straight forward, having your hand in the ground allows you to get lower and gives you more strength from your legs than you would have from an offensive lineman in a two-point stance.
Leverage is everything when blocking. If you want leverage straight up the field, you put your hand in the ground and go right at the defender. If you want leverage when moving side to side to get to the edge, you keep your hands up, which helps offensive linemen beat their defenders to the spot and have better balance at the point of contact.
Kentucky's going to test Jonathan Bullard and Caleb Brantley in the middle by going right at them more than we've seen yet this year. That's not to say they won't try to attack the edges of Florida's defense (a weakness, if you ask me), but they also won't abandon their identity. Watch the hands of the offensive guards in the pre-snap. They'll give you a hint as to what to expect in the upcoming play.
Pressure off the edge
Stoops came into his tenure with Kentucky as a 4-3 defensive guy, but with talents like Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree on the roster, his UK defenses transformed into a full-blown 3-4. That worked for Stoops when the right players were there, but now they're in that 3-4 philosophy without the edge rushing talent to maximize it.
Last year Stoops ran his defense by emphasizing Dupree much like Muschamp ran his by featuring Dante Fowler. Both players played the BUCK or walk-up linebacker position and the rest of the defense shifted to maximize their pass rushing abilities — and, of course, both of those players were first-rounders, too. It's tough to replace talent like that.
Here's what we'll see most of the time out of Kentucky. They'll have five defensive backs out to cover all of Florida's receivers with three down linemen, two linebackers in the second level and that BUCK linebacker standing up to rush the passer. So far, that's been redshirt freshman Denzil Ware. He's fared well, but you can definitely see a drop in production between him and Dupree — which you would expect when replacing a first-rounder with a redshirt freshman.
It's tough to predict the kind of production we'll see from Kentucky's defense going into Saturday; they'll get a boost from a player we haven't seen yet when LB/DE Jason Hatcher returns from his two-game suspension. Hatcher, a junior, played opposite Dupree last season and was groomed to take his spot this year. He's not as explosive as Dupree, but he'll be a consistency and size upgrade from Ware's presence in the Wildcats' first two games.
But, again, predicting Kentucky's defense is a tough task early in the year because, well, we don't know them. Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan were supposed to be one of the team's strengths as a formidable duo of inside linebackers. But Flannigan has been sidelined with an injury, and it doesn't look like he'll suit up on Saturday. That leaves the Wildcats with four true freshmen as their backup linebackers. When they got out to a big lead over Louisiana, the youth of the second-team defense was part of what let the Ragin' Cajuns back in it.
The strong spot of this UK defense is the back line: Safeties AJ Stamps and Marcus McWilson. Stamps is regarded as a good NFL Draft prospect, and he and his partner in crime, McWilson, do a nice job of defending the deep ball and making their presence known all around the field. Though Kentucky's cornerbacks are less than stellar, Stamps and McWilson have been able to keep passing offenses from totally ripping UK apart.
As I always do, I try to ask my interviewee their prediction of the game. Hale was cautiously optimistic for his new beat.
"I’m 28, so the streak started five months after I was born, so I’ve never seen Kentucky beat Florida. I don’t know what that looks like (laughs). I think they have a chance this week. They had a good shot last year with some missed chances, and I would not be shocked if they end it. If they win, the fans might just rush the field."
And, look, I don't want it to happen, but if Florida loses? I'm #TeamRushTheField. You can hate me now.
Make sure you all give Jon a follow at @JonHale_CJ. If you want a diverse timeline of SEC guys, he's a good one to have on there.
An easy way to remember what two-, three-, and four-point stances are? Count how many body parts are touching the ground. (This goes for defenders, too.) If it's just two feet and no hands on the ground, that's a two-point stance; if there are two feet and one hand, that's three; if both hands and both feet are down, that's four.