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Florida vs. Kentucky: Why I don’t believe this year’s Wildcats hype

Is Kentucky more paper tiger than snarling foe?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

This, in the year 2017, is the year that the Kentucky Wildcats finally upend the Florida Gators in a college football game.

At least, that’s what we’re meant to believe this week’s predictions and preparations mean.

And, okay, yes: Florida has been mostly unimpressive in its two games, getting steamrollered slowly and fighting back punchlessly against Michigan and needing to fend off Tennessee thanks largely to an offense that didn’t rev up until its defense was gassed. I get that Florida looks vulnerable, like it did in 2007, or 2013, or 2015 — years in which Florida was coming off two straight losses, starting a quarterback for the first time, and starting a freshman quarterback on the road for the first time, respectively, on the way to Lexington.

But, well, Florida’s been that. Florida was that last year, too, when it struggled to score against UMass and then throttled Kentucky by a 45-7 count in The Swamp before once again struggling to score against North Texas. Florida pasted Kentucky 48-10 in Lexington in 2011, then scored 47 points in its next four games combined — a bizarre echo of the 2010 season, in which Florida put up 48 on Kentucky and then scored 42 points over its next three games.

And even when Florida’s been down — or “down” — in the less-recent past, it hasn’t been enough to lead to a Gators loss.

Florida beat Kentucky by seven points and then three points in the first two years of the Ron Zook era — and subsequently beat the Wildcats by 17 during the campaign that would see Zook fired. With the NFL Draft’s No. 1 pick throwing passes in 1998, Kentucky still fell two touchdowns short of Florida. Florida spent most of the late 1980s on NCAA-mandated probation for a variety of reasons, and Florida still only lost once to Kentucky from 1980 to 1989 — in the fateful 1986 game that marred a November in which the Gators beat Auburn, Georgia, and Florida State.

The history of the Florida-Kentucky rivalry on the gridiron is one of Florida dominating even when it shouldn’t, and squeaking out wins even when it isn’t dominant. The difference this year — we’re told, anyway — is that this Kentucky team is different.

It was “tempting to talk yourself into” Kentucky this offseason. Finishing 6-6 “would feel like regression” for these ‘Cats. This year, there are four reasons Kentucky will beat Florida, starting with the quarterback who threw just three passes against Florida last year because he couldn’t beat out the quarterback who completed three passes to Florida defenders and two to Kentucky players. (The one genuinely good reason to worry would be that Florida would be a wretched No. 110 in S&P+ based only on 2017 performance — 30 spots worse than Kentucky, even — based largely on just how bad Florida was against Michigan ... but I’m not seeing that one cited, really, and besides, those statistics are far more volatile than predictive at this stage.)

Hope springs eternal, of course. But hope is also a fragile thing, and I would have hope but not faith about these Wildcats this weekend if I were a Kentucky fan. Here’s why.

Kentucky’s been unimpressive against decent-to-bad teams

Kentucky’s three wins are over Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, over Eastern Kentucky at home, and over South Carolina on the road, and are by seven, 11, and 10 points, respectively.

South Carolina might be decent, but South Carolina also put up 5.6 yards per play and just 13 points on the Wildcats, lost do-everything weapon Deebo Samuel in the second half, and hasn’t beaten Kentucky in four years, so who knows? Southern Miss followed its loss to Kentucky by crushing Southern and beating Louisiana-Monroe, and would be No. 25 in S&P+ for 2017 alone — another clear sign that S&P+ for 2017 alone might not be the best predictive value — but still ranks No. 91 in Sagarin. Eastern Kentucky is No. 186 in Sagarin — making Eastern Kentucky not even a decent FCS team, and just one spot better than the No. 187 Indiana State outfit that last Florida foe Tennessee had dispatched — and the Colonels led at halftime at Kroger Field, then trailed by a single point entering the fourth quarter, neither of which they had done one week prior in a game at Western Kentucky. (Western Kentucky, mind, is now 1-2, with losses to Illinois and Louisiana Tech.)

Is any of those Kentucky wins as or more impressive as Florida’s over Tennessee? The only one that seems like it would arguably be close is last weekend’s over South Carolina — and the Wildcats were outgained by a Will Muschamp-Kurt Roper production even though they ran almost 20 more plays. Benny Snell topped 100 rushing yards, but it took him 32 carries, and South Carolina had two possessions in Kentucky territory while leading 6-0 before five minutes were up, but could not manage to add to that lead.

Your mileage may vary on the value of Florida nearly blowing a game it had in hand against Tennessee and then shocking the Vols at the last second, but I can’t squint at Kentucky’s body of work and see a definitively good team, much less a very good one — and I think Florida’s emphatic loss was to a very good team, and its win came over an arguably good one.

Kentucky’s defense is one-sided

The social teases for this story on Kentucky’s run defense regard it as “impenetrable.” And Kentucky’s third nationally in both yards per carry allowed and yards per game allowed. That’s pretty good.

That statistic was helped, probably, by the Gamecocks losing Samuel and running the ball just 20 times — for more yards than they managed against N.C. State, mind — and by Eastern Kentucky running it just as many times. But keeping Southern Miss in check (38 carries for 55 yards for a team that has since run for 197 and 284 yards) was a truly impressive feat, it would seem.

Of course, the Golden Eagles also wrote the book on Kentucky being vulnerable through the air, rather than reading it and acting accordingly. Southern Miss threw for 309 yards on the Wildcats, despite completing just 20 of 42 passes and rotating two QBs. Eastern Kentucky threw for 259 yards while doing the same. And South Carolina’s Jake Bentley went for 304 yards despite losing his best receiver along the way.

Kentucky’s gaudy run defense stats help to hide a pass defense ranked No. 108 nationally — this despite Kentucky never quite leading by so many points that other teams had to throw. And while Florida’s own pass defense is actually giving up a tenth of a yard per attempt more than Kentucky’s (7.3 to 7.2), the Gators have snagged five picks — and could arguably have seven — over two games, while Kentucky has nabbed just three over three.

It is possible, and maybe likely, that Florida will struggle to run against the ‘Cats, but there should be opportunities for Feleipe Franks to throw on them.

Hype has not suited Kentucky well

Florida fans remember many games with hosannas slung Kentucky’s way as prelude. That’s happened with even more frequency over the last several years, as Mark Stoops — different from previous Kentucky coaches for this or that reason, though winless against Florida like most of the rest — has built the Wildcats into a respectable program that can do things like upset Louisville on occasion and hang around .500.

But the pressure of being the Kentucky team to knock off Florida has seemed to me to weigh heavily on Kentucky teams of years past.

The 2013 Wildcats should really have been the team to do it, given that Florida was starting Tyler Murphy on the road in the midst of what was to be a 4-8 campaign. But Murphy was calm and Kentucky was ineffective save for a fake field goal that yielded a touchdown, and Florida controlled that game en route to a 24-7 win.

In 2014, Kentucky had its closest call against Florida in the last 30 years — a triple-overtime game. And Kentucky rolled up 400-plus yards of total offense and bombed Florida’s ballyhooed secondary and did what it wanted on offense ... but Jeff Driskel and Demarcus Robinson helped the Gators stave off those ‘Cats.

Even when Kentucky has been relatively close to beating Florida, or being better than Florida — and that’s been truer than not for much of the last decade — it has still managed to botch its chances to break the streak. When Kentucky led late in 1993, Danny Wuerffel threw a strike and Doering had a touchdown. When Tim Tebow got concussed, Florida already had a huge lead. When Andre’ Woodson looked like a Heisman contender, Tebow had an even better day.

And while I don’t want to give too much credit to the motivations of upholding or upsetting the status quo on either side of this series, Florida knowing it will beat Kentucky has seemed to grant confidence, not hubris, while the Wildcats thinking they have to beat the Gators has produced frayed nerves rather than steeled spines.

I could be wrong about that, and an exception could always come on Saturday night. But I’ll believe Florida losing to Kentucky in football when I see it.

And in my life, I haven’t seen that yet.