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Thursday Thought: Florida was overdue for a loss to Kentucky — and is now worse for it

Florida’s stunning streak came to a stunning end at the worst possible time.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Streak never should have reached 31 games.

The Kentucky Wildcats should’ve beaten the Florida Gators in 1993, when Chris Doering got a touchdown against an ill-timed Cover 2 coverage — succinctly explained by Steve Spurrier in the booth for last Saturday’s game — and the Gators escaped Lexington with a 24-20 win.

Kentucky maybe could’ve given Florida a better game in 1997 or 1998, when future No. 1 pick Tim Couch was the Wildcats’ QB, but those were Florida teams defending their first national title and rebounding from a loss to Tennessee en route to 10 wins, respectively, and Couch’s last year in Lexington saw the ‘Cats come to Gainesville.

Kentucky could’ve beaten Ron Zook-coached Florida teams in 2002 or 2003, too — it lost those games by seven and three points, the second one by blowing a 21-3 lead it had entering the fourth quarter to freshman Chris Leak and losing 24-21.

The Wildcats had a chance again in 2007, when Florida took a young and flammable defense to Lexington to play a Kentucky team led by Heisman candidate Andre’ Woodson ... except Florida had a Heisman candidate, too, and Tim Tebow wasn’t letting Florida lose a third straight game.

Kentucky had a really good shot at Florida in 2013, too — when Florida was starting Tyler Murphy, had just lost Dominique Easley, and was about to go 4-8 — but lost that game 24-7 in Lexington. In 2014, Kentucky let Demarcus Robinson catch about 420 passes and couldn’t stave off the Gators late — we forget that, even if a delay of game call had been made prior to a game-tying touchdown Florida was going to get another shot at that — or stop them in overtime. Last year, Florida trailed Kentucky by 13 in the fourth quarter in Lexington — and won, partially because Kentucky twice failed to line up a defender on a receiver at critical moments and scuttled its final drive with a stupid and obvious hold by a lineman.

Basically every other game since Florida’s winning streak against Kentucky began has not been even close. But if Florida had lost in 1993, 2003, and 2013 — just once a decade, and twice in relative down years for the Gators — then the streak would never have been The Streak.

It did, though — and now Florida gets to deal with its wake.

An aside: If we’re being honest as Florida fans? The Streak was really only one of six incredible and meaningful streaks that Florida carried after the Spurrier years.

Florida didn’t lose to Kentucky under Spurrier. It also didn’t lose to Vanderbilt. It didn’t have any losing seasons. It didn’t lose any season openers. It maintained the Gators’ record of wins over non-Division 1-A teams. And it maintained a scoring streak.

And over the next three or four coaches, most of those streaks continued, and for literal decades — before the finally started getting snapped, one by one, earlier this decade.

2013 brought Florida’s first losing record since 1979, a loss to Vanderbilt, and that first seismic loss to an FCS program on that day against Georgia Southern. 2017 brought a loss in a season opener, and a second losing season in four years.

And now 2018 has brought a loss to Kentucky.

The only meaningful streak still going is the scoring streak — maybe the least likely to have survived all this time, given Florida’s historically poor offenses, but still alive nonetheless.

And that means something, especially because it’s now the record for consecutive games with points by a Division 1 team. But it’s the last Florida streak that means anything.

Someday, probably, it will get snapped, too.

But The Streak, the one against Kentucky? I think it would have been better for Florida today, in 2018, if it had not been established by Spurrier in the first place, or had not survived until last Saturday.

Losses at most of the previous points of inflection likely would not have done all that much to harm the Gators or help the Wildcats.

If Florida loses to Kentucky in 1993, it probably doesn’t meaningfully change the trajectory of either program. Florida is still ascendant, and ticketed for an eventual national title, and Kentucky remains moribund.

If Florida loses to Kentucky later in the 1990s, uh, Tim Couch is remembered more fondly, I guess? Spurrier was never going to get fired, and Kentucky wasn’t going to be a national power or an SEC East contender back then. Hal Mumme still gets fired because an assistant got sloppy.

If Florida loses to Kentucky under Ron Zook, Zook ... maybe gets fired slightly earlier than he did? Kentucky would have gotten all the way to eight wins in 2002 had it knocked off Florida, and the Wildcats nose-dived (nose-dove?) to 4-8 in 2003 as Rich Brooks installed his program, so even a win over Florida wasn’t helping their trajectory very much.

If Florida loses to Kentucky in 2007, things may have gotten more interesting. Woodson becomes maybe the Heisman winner, so long as a Dennis Dixon injury still clears the way for an SEC stat-compiler to win it in a screwy year, and Kentucky is 7-1 with back-to-back wins over LSU and Florida, rather than 6-2 with a fluke win over LSU sandwiched between losses to South Carolina and Florida, and possibly soars toward legitimate title contention rather than the 8-5 record it finished with.

Longtime Kentucky coach Rich Brooks was 66 then and retired just two years later, though, so it’s hard to say that Kentucky would’ve made itself ascendant for long after a 2007 win — and any progress would likely have been squandered by Kentucky elevating Joker Phillips after Brooks departed, not least because no Phillips team lost to Florida by fewer than 34 points.

And while Florida losing in 2013, 2014, or 2017 would have helped Kentucky a fair bit, I think — Mark Stoops would have had that breakthrough win earlier than he got it — those losses would not have meaningfully changed Florida’s trajectory. Will Muschamp wasn’t getting fired after a road loss with a backup QB in 2013, and I doubt he would have been fired earlier than he was in 2014 based on any on-field results. Likewise, Jim McElwain losing The Streak wouldn’t have gotten him fired any earlier, either: He was fired for on-field results, sure, but he was also fired because there was a personality conflict too big to solve, and Florida losing games was more the trigger for his firing than the reason.

Florida losing to Kentucky at any point this decade likely still gets us to this moment, in which Mark Stoops has a 1-0 record against the Gators as coached by Dan Mullen.

But this moment in which that is true and Dan Mullen is 0-1 in SEC play at Florida stands to both elevate Kentucky and deflate Florida.

The Wildcats can finally sell their program as a mid-tier one in the SEC East — and, hell, if Kentucky can run for 300 yards a game, maybe it’s actually a contender for the division crown. Stoops got that done in Gainesville, too, and in a primetime game, which augments the impact in substantial ways: People saw this game, to include recruits.

And while Florida’s recruits saw it, too — and, I’m guessing, largely saw playing time at practically every position on the field — they obviously didn’t see a jubilant sideline after the game. Florida’s path to bowl eligibility is significantly harder now, and Mullen’s chances of selling Florida as a program on the rise rather than one struggling to not drown now depend even more on either holding serve for the rest of the year or scoring a significant upset somewhere along the way.

The Streak is over now, but a new one may follow it. It strikes me as very much possible that Florida will avenge its death in a year — when Mullen has had a full year to put his team through its paces, when new faces have taken over spots on the lines that have been held by the same underperforming names for too long, and when Kentucky no longer has a battering ram named Benny Snell to hand off to 20-plus times.

For now, though, Kentucky appears to be a better football team — and maybe a better football program — than Florida, a perception Mullen will have to work hard to dispel.

And that’s largely thanks to a streak becoming The Streak, and never ending until it did.