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Florida vs. Kentucky, Preview: Can the Gators get to 32?

Florida looks to have edges on the Wildcats. (Again.)

Charleston Southern v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Florida Gators won’t have CeCe Jefferson (“academic-related” suspension), Shawn Davis, or David Reese the elder against the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).

But other than that, it’s basically all hands on deck for the Gators, who will be trying to knock off the Wildcats for the 32nd consecutive year and meeting.

When Florida has the ball

The Gators began their 2018 season explosively last Saturday against Charleston Southern, putting up 53 points and getting 51 of them from their offense — 38 of those in the first half, thanks largely to five touchdowns from Feleipe Franks.

Franks threw those to four of his wide receivers — Van Jefferson got two, and Tyrie Cleveland, Trevon Grimes, and Josh Hammond each got one — but it was a fifth wideout, Freddie Swain, who was actually Florida’s leading receiver on the night. And for this game against Kentucky, the Gators get back the previously suspended Kadarius Toney, perhaps their quickest pass-catcher. Should Florida’s line be able to give Franks time to throw against a Wildcats rush that mustered just two sacks against Central Michigan a week ago, he should have open receivers to target — but Kentucky did hold the Chippewas to just 137 yards through the air.

Central Michigan didn’t do much better on the ground, churning its 118 rushing yards on 39 carries for just better than three yards a carry. But Florida has a running back rotation as deep or deeper than its receiving corps, with Dameon Pierce emerging from the pack to lead all Gators with 75 yards gained on nine pounding carries against the Buccaneers. And while Florida starter Jordan Scarlett looked rusty in his return after a year-long suspension in 2018, the Gators opened up enough holes for all of their rushers to tally 205 yards on their own 39 carries against the Bucs.

Edge: Florida

When Kentucky has the ball

The Wildcats were arguably as good as they have ever been on offense against Florida over the duration of their 31-year losing streak in 2017, putting up 27 points that really should have been more than 30 and getting pinpoint passes from Stephen Johnson to score their touchdowns. But Johnson is gone, and while Benny Snell gives Kentucky a bellcow back, scoring on Florida in The Swamp might be a different prospect for the Wildcats.

That’s especially true after how dominant the Gators were on defense against Charleston Southern. The Buccaneers had just five yards of total offense by the time Florida’s lead reached 38-0 last Saturday, and got about a third of their yards on the night on a 70-yard scamper earned via broken tackles seconds before the end of the half. Beyond that, Florida largely played backups and yielded rushing yards — yet still didn’t give up points until the fourth quarter against a creative option scheme. Florida could use Davis, Jefferson, and especially Reese, but the players it will have on hand proved to be formidable last week.

Kentucky was equal parts formidable and faltering. The Wildcats did ultimately put up 35 points on Central Michigan, largely by rushing for 299 yards on 43 carries and getting both Snell (125 yards) and Asim Rose (104 yards) over the century mark and into the end zone twice. But Terry Wilson, Kentucky’s starting QB, threw for just 78 yards, tossed two interceptions, and had no touchdowns in the game — and yet he’s still starting ahead of Gunner Hoak, who did throw a touchdown against the Chippewas.

And Wilson’s two picks were just two of four total turnovers by the Wildcats, who led 21-20 at halftime partly because of those giveaways before pulling away in the second half.

If Kentucky makes as many mistakes against Florida, which pounced on two fumbles and got a pick in the waning seconds against Charleston Southern, it might be the prelude to a lopsided loss.

Edge: Florida

When both teams are kicking

Florida’s special teams looked quite good in their first game under Dan Mullen last Saturday. Florida blocked a field goal and an extra point, returning the latter for two points, and both covered and returned punts and kicks well. Tommy Townsend averaged nearly 45 yards on just two tries — far fewer than his brother Johnny typically had to attempt in a game — and Evan McPherson and Jorge Powell combined to make all of their kicks, too — and though McPherson has now been installed as Florida’s starter at kicker, Powell made the longest field goal of the day.

Kentucky’s return teams performed well against the Chippewas. The Wildcats averaged about 10 yards a punt return but just 20 yards a kick return, and though kickoff specialist Grant McKinniss recorded just one touchback on six kicks, Central Michigan averaged just under 20 yards a return. Punter Max Duffy was maybe the highlight of the night, averaging 50 yards a boot on four kicks; Kentucky allowed just one yard on two punt returns as a result of his excellent work.

Slight edge: Florida