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Florida vs. Kentucky preview: Gators seek yet another W over Wildcats

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Florida may have to throw to win in Lexington.

Tennessee v Florida Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Last week’s win over Tennessee gave the Florida Gators a reprieve from an 0-2 start and a shot of confidence after a dismal loss to Michigan to begin the season. But now, the Gators go on the road again, this time to face the Kentucky Wildcats in a hostile stadium named for a grocer, and have 30 years of winning history on the line.

Will the next chapter in the book be the same as the last three decades’ worth?

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Kentucky rush defense

Florida’s still without Jordan Scarlett, but it found uses for all of Lamical Perine, Mark Thompson, and Malik Davis against Tennessee, and is likely to turn to all three in some combination in Lexington. Add in a sprinkling of Kadarius Toney or even Malik Zaire in the running game, and the Gators would seem to have a number of good options to make use of on the ground.

Kentucky’s run defense is leaps and bounds better than Tennessee’s, though — and, by raw numbers, is even better than Michigan’s.

The Wildcats are allowing 57 yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry in 2017, and though those numbers were compiled against Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky, and South Carolina — as detailed earlier this week — they have also produced decent stats when adjusted for competiton and game state. S&P+ has Kentucky’s Success Rate against the run at No. 19 nationally, and the Wildcats are all the way up at No. 2 in isolated points per play allowed, a measure of how well a defense limits explosive plays.

The Wildcats have allowed just four runs of 10 or more yards, and none of 20 or more — putting them among just four teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Combine that with Florida’s extreme dearth of long runs — apart from Davis’s 74-yarder against Tennessee, the Gators have just four runs of 10 or more yards, and one of 20 or more (which was the other run ending in a fumble against Tennessee), the recipe for being dead last at No. 130 in isolated points per play — and this game pits a strength for the team in blue against a weakness for the Gators.

Edge: Kentucky

Florida passing game vs. Kentucky pass defense

That said, Florida should have chances to throw against the Wildcats.

Feleipe Franks got better as the game wore on against Tennessee, turning in a good fourth quarter that became legendary on the strength of one perfect play (and perfect throw). But he started slowly, and was actually better against Michigan to my eye than he was for about the first 40 minutes of game clock against the Vols. And Tennessee’s secondary and pass rush also weren’t all that harrowing — Michigan’s rush, at least, was — so there ought to be some concern about Franks simply not being able to find receivers quickly at this stage of his development.

Kentucky should give him his first truly forgiving defense to throw against.

The Wildcats have coughed up a hair under 290 passing yards per game through three contests, and haven’t made the plays on defense that Florida’s similarly yard-yielding secondary has to compensate for it, intercepting just three passes against five touchdowns allowed. And you would be very, very hard-pressed to name any of the quarterbacks or receivers the Wildcats have played against other than South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Deebo Samuel. Kentucky ranks No. 92 in Success Rate against the pass, and while Florida is only at No. 97 on the offensive side of that equation, there’s reason to believe that Franks’s share of that statistic might be slightly better, given that he outplayed Zaire against Michigan.

Florida still misses Antonio Callaway badly in the passing game, but seems to have an emerging Tyrie Cleveland building chemistry and rhythm with Franks, and also has a spark plug to insert as needed in Toney. And if DeAndre Goolsby or any other tight end could make a meaningful play in this game, that, too, would be a boost.

Slight edge: Florida

When Kentucky has the ball

Kentucky running game vs. Florida rush defense

This may be the decisive matchup of this game.

Kentucky’s got a serviceable rushing attack on the surface — over 155 yards per game, and a two-time 100-yard rusher in Benny Snell — that does not look as good under the microscope. The ‘Cats rank No. 114 in rushing Success Rate, and are just about average in terms of explosiveness, with 12 10-yarders, six 20-yarders, and just one run of more than 30 yards all year, despite quarterback Stephen Johnson clicking off more than 10 yards per carry on his non-sack attempts. Snell averages just under four yards a carry, but struggled to top three yards a tote against South Carolina, and Kentucky rides him — 71 carries in three games — rather than rotating its backs meaningfully.

Florida’s defense, though, has been good against the run initially, then bad against it over the course of a full game. The Gators wore down against Michigan’s many-headed attack, and had Tennessee’s John Kelly hemmed up for almost the entirety of the first half, then couldn’t grab much more than a stitch of him for the last 32 minutes of play last Saturday. The Gators are No. 68 in Success Rate allowed, which isn’t awful, but they’re No. 110 in isolated points per play allowed, and that inability to limit explosive plays on the ground has been back-breaking at times.

The Gators should theoretically be able to stop Snell fairly often, but allowing big plays to him — or to Johnson, who is the sort of adept scrambler who has given Florida’s rushers fits in recent years — would wipe out much of the Gators’ hard work.

Edge: Even

Kentucky passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Here we have the Gators’ largest advantage. Or so you’d think.

Johnson is a decent quarterback who waited a long, long time to become a starter, having signed with Grambling out of high school in 2013, left for junior college, and signed with Kentucky in 2015. He made a very brief cameo in Florida’s 45-7 rout of Kentucky in 2016, heaving the lone touchdown pass of the game for the Wildcats in relief of Drew Barker, and has been Mark Stoops’s starting signal-caller since.

He has not, to date, been a great passer for more than fits and starts. Johnson has three games with a passer rating of better than 190.00, four with a rating between 145.00 and 170.00, and seven with a passer rating of 115.00 or worse. One of those great games came against Louisville last year, in Kentucky’s upset of the high-flying Cardinals, but SEC defenses really troubled Johnson in 2016, as he posted a rating of 106.77 against them in eight games, despite his long touchdown pass against Florida and the good fortune of seeing the gossamer Mississippi State secondary as one of his two SEC West opponents. And early returns in 2017 — Johnson’s 112.78 rating against South Carolina last week — are not promising.

Yet despite that, Kentucky has cobbled together a passable aerial assault, ranking No. 53 in Success Rate. And while Florida is No. 37 in Success Rate allowed, and rather likely to get better rather than worse given the verdancy of its secondary, that secondary is also No. 117 in isolated points per play, and has given up nine completions of 20 or more yards and three of 40 or more yards in just two games.

Florida has compensated for that flammability with explosive plays from its defense — three pick-sixes, and a pick to snuff out a Tennessee possession at the goal line — but the pick-sixes can’t possibly be sustainable, right? If the Gators can cut down on the big plays allowed, they won’t need to do as much compensating.

Slight edge: Florida

Special teams

Another week, another easy write-up on special teams: Florida is great at kicking the ball, and not so great at fielding kicked balls and returning them, while Florida Opponent _______ is not quite as good at the kicking and better at the returning.

Kentucky’s Austin MacGinnis is 7-for-8 on threes this year, while Matt Panton is solidly middle-of-the-road in terms of punting average; neither has the leg of Eddy Piñeiro or Johnny Townsend. But while Kentucky has one punt return for a loss of one yard over three games, the Wildcats do have a kick returner, backup running back Sihiem King, averaging better than 30 yards per return.

Florida hasn’t had one of those in ... uh. Well. It’s been a while.

Slight edge: Florida

Other factors

I could reiterate all my feelings on Kentucky being wound up to finally knock off Florida while Florida is on alert to defend its dominance over Kentucky, but you get the gist of that.

One thing I would note: Florida’s 2013 trip to Kentucky began with a fake field goal turned into a touchdown for the Wildcats, and then turned into a strangulation. The Gators’ 2015 visit was a little more nervy, as Kentucky stayed within striking distance throughout. If Florida could score early and maybe puncture the confidence of the contingent of Big Blue Nation in attendance, it might just go a long way.

Edge: Florida