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Florida vs. Kentucky, Preview: Can Gators get revenge in Lexington?

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A year after breaking one streak, Florida will be motivated to manufacture another.

Tennessee-Martin v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Florida Gators had a rather successful 2018 season, finishing with 10 wins and on a fine winning streak. But they also saw their decades-long winning streak against the Kentucky Wildcats snapped early last year, and are only just now getting their shot at revenge.

And when they roll into Kroger Field tonight, they’ll have a great chance at getting it.

Here’s how we see this game.

When Florida has the ball

Florida running game vs. Kentucky rush defense

Here is probably Kentucky’s best edge in this game — and it’s not that great an edge. Florida sputtered on the ground against Miami (50 rushing yards on 28 carries) and then did so again early on against Tennessee-Martin before ultimately wearing the Skyhawks down en route to 231 yards on the ground. Florida’s 4.26 yards per carry in 2019 is nothing special, and its second-, third-, and fourth-leading rushers being Feleipe Franks, Iverson Clement, and Emory Jones speaks to an inability to get more than starter Lamical Perine going through two games. If Florida’s run blocking improves on the relatively unimpressive efforts we’ve seen thus far, the backs behind it certainly have talent — but few would forecast improvement as likely.

Kentucky, meanwhile, has been pretty average against the run. Toledo ran for 181 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats in a closer-than-the-score 38-24 game in Week 1, and Eastern Michigan’s 49 yards on 22 carries speaks mostly to the Eagles abandoning the run after falling into a 24-3 hole. (EMU’s next two drives featured just three runs — two by its QB — and yet both resulted in touchdowns.) Florida springing a competent running game on the Wildcats — especially with Franks doing some of the running — wouldn’t be a substantial surprise.

Slight edge: Kentucky

Florida passing game vs. Kentucky pass defense

Kentucky has been surprisingly effective against Franks as a thrower over the last two years, stymieing him enough in 2017 to send him to the bench and prompt Luke Del Rio to lead a surprising comeback and producing maybe his worst full game as a starter last year, a 17-for-38 affair with a pair of touchdowns and a pick that only Fetty Wap could really love. And Kentucky shut down Toledo’s passing game, allowing the Rockets’ two QBs to complete just 11 of 25 passes.

But Kentucky also gave up 337 yards and two touchdowns through the air to Eastern Michigan, which spent 2018 toggling between two QBs who would not be mistaken for Franks, and the Wildcats no longer have pass-rusher Josh Allen nor excellent defensive back (and perpetual Florida nemesis) Chris Westry, though Kash Daniel can certainly create havoc in his own right.

The more important difference from 2018 when it comes to this matchup, though, is probably Florida’s improvement as a passing team since that night. The Gators have been notably good at pass blocking almost since that day, and have been quite good early this year, even against a reputedly good Miami front seven. Franks has made good use of that time, too, throwing effectively at times against the Hurricanes and playing a masterful game against UT-Martin by taking what the defense gave him all the way to a 25-for-27 night that set a school record for completion percentage. And he has a slew of targets to turn to in the passing game, even if Florida won’t have Kadarius Toney to deploy on this evening.

Not seeing a Florida advantage here would have everything to do with staying skeptical about Franks — and while there’s justification for that, my guess is he shows up in a big way.

Edge: Florida

When Kentucky has the ball

Kentucky running game vs. Florida rush defense

Benny Snell is no longer a Kentucky Wildcat, in awesome news for Florida. The Wildcats’ bowling ball ran for 175 yards against the Gators last year, in perhaps the best single performance by any Kentucky player against Florida on a football field in the last 30 years, and was arguably the best reason the Wildcats won that game.

This year, Kentucky has mostly ridden Kavoisier Smoke, who may have the best name ever given to a human, and Asim Rose on the ground, and both backs have tallied better than 140 rushing yards through two games. Smoke, the smaller and quicker back, has more than doubled Rose’s yards per carry, though, and should be seen as the Wildcats’ biggest threat.

Florida has been excellent against the run, though, yielding just 141 yards over two games and just five carries of 10 or more yards. And Terry Wilson ran for 105 yards against the Gators last year; while Troy transfer Sawyer Smith has some juice in his own legs, he’s probably not going to threaten the century mark against the Gators.

Slight edge: Florida

Kentucky passing game vs. Florida pass defense

Despite that 100-yard day on the ground, Wilson — who will miss the remainder of the 2019 season after suffering a left knee injury on a brutal tackle against Eastern Michigan — may have been even more impressive as a thrower in Kentucky’s upset win a year ago. He completed just 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards, but also had two touchdowns on letter-perfect throws, and posted his second-best passer rating of the year — and the second-best rating compiled against the 2018 Gators — on that Saturday night in The Swamp.

Smith won’t have most of the targets Wilson had on hand, with tight end C.J. Conrad and safety valve Snell in the NFL, but No. 1 receiver Lynn Bowden is back (and will be wearing Wilson’s No. 3 in tribute to him), and lanky former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner — whose Kentucky bio suggests his 2018 contributions amounted to “was a target for QB Terry Wilson four times which drew three defensive pass interference calls” — has emerged as a No. 2 option for Kentucky, collecting three catches for at least 57 yards in each of the Wildcats’ two games thus far.

Florida may miss CJ Henderson dearly against Bowden, as it will likely need Marco Wilson’s more physical stylings to match up with Wagner and thus have to turn to a lesser, younger player to cover Bowden if Henderson cannot go. But Florida’s pass rush has been among the nation’s best so far this year, generating 15 sacks and even more non-sack disruption through two games, and Kentucky’s three sacks allowed and mere eight yards lost on those sacks through two games surely had something to do with Wilson’s mobility.

Smith appeared capable on two touchdown drives against Eastern Michigan, but, well, watch the plays at the link and tell me whether you think Florida’s defense is liable to be as pliable as the Eagles’ was in those instances. Kentucky fans ought to have hope that Smith can be good — he was, in fact, good at Troy in 2018, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes and strafing Buffalo for 320 yards in four touchdowns in a bowl game — but it’s also true that their starting quarterback a week ago was the only Kentucky QB to beat Florida in a generation (and a half), while their starter now is someone who has never before seen more than mop-up duty against a defense like the one the Gators will bring to bear.

Edge: Florida

Special teams

Florida’s presumed perennial edge in special teams may not be as dramatic against Kentucky as it is against most teams. Kentucky punter Max Duffy is averaging better than 50 yards per punt this year, and kicker Chance Poore — what an incredible name for a kicker! — is two for three on field goals, but it’s Bowden’s excellence as a returner that makes the Wildcats dangerous and capable of churning up hidden yards when someone’s kicking.

Of course, Florida’s also given up just three kickoff returns this year and has one of the nation’s best punters in Tommy Townsend. Neutralizing Bowden may not be as hard for Florida as generating a big return, especially with the explosive but erratic Toney being replaced as a kick returner and Freddie Swain yet to bust a significant punt return in 2019.

Slight edge: Florida

Other factors

The Wildcats are going to play inspired football for some stretch of this game, one has to assume, given that it is a home game, a night game, and a first full game without Wilson. Kentucky’s perception of Florida as a rival and a measuring stick will also do plenty to fuel the Wildcats.

But Florida is undoubtedly inspired in equal measure by the seared-in memory of losing to Kentucky last year, and/or by the relatively close calls in years prior. It’s been three years since a Florida win over Kentucky by double digits, and six since such a win in Lexington, but Mullen’s first stint in Gainesville featured three lopsided wins and a shootout victory over then-Heisman candidate Andre’ Woodson. If you think he isn’t motivated to inspire his team to a big win after becoming the first Florida coach since Doug Dickey to lose to the ‘Cats, I think you have misread Dan Mullen — dramatically.

Edge: Florida