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Friday Forum: How big is Kentucky’s window for beating Florida regularly?

Kentucky has recently clawed back into what was a hammer-and-nail rivalry. Florida could wrest full control back in a hurry, however.

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

When Florida Gators fans think of their team’s annual series with the Kentucky Wildcats, they think first of what I have often termed simply The Streak — a 31-game, 31-year winning streak that the Gators embarked on in 1987 and that Kentucky did not snap until 2018.

It was one of the longest winning streaks in an annual series in the modern history of college football, and because it also overlapped with Florida’s dynastic periods in the 1990s under Steve Spurrier and the late 2000s under Urban Meyer, it spanned entire generations of Gators fans, many of whom have never really had any fear of Kentucky as a football program, and most of whom probably struggle to respect the Wildcats as a rising challenger in the SEC East.

Kentucky, though, is almost certainly no worse than the SEC East’s third-best team at the moment and in recent years. Kentucky has four winning seasons in its last five tries, and probably would have be five-for-five in that regard had a pandemic not shuffled its 2020 slate to include games against both Alabama and Ole Miss and wiped out its non-conference schedule. Visiting Kentucky at night now seems like a daunting task to some Florida fans — this despite Kentucky’s last win at home over Florida coming with Ronald Reagan’s second term yet to be rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal.

Kentucky has scraped to something like the floors beneath the SEC East’s penthouse, and is 4-0 in this young 2021 season. It is reasonable to think that this Kentucky team has a legitimate shot at knocking off the Florida team coming to Lexington on Saturday.

Florida can — and might — change that perception in a hurry.

Calling Kentucky the third-best team in the SEC East is damning with faint praise. The two teams atop the division in the minds of most are clearly Florida and Georgia in some order — the Gators have been to three straight New Year’s Six bowls and Georgia has been to the College Football Playoff, and whether you slot the Gators ahead of the Bulldogs because of their 2020 win in Jacksonville or put Georgia at No. 1 because of its fantastic recruiting and what looks like a very strong team in 2021.

The four teams behind Kentucky, on the other hand — Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt — have combined for zero 10-win seasons since Missouri went 10-4 in 2014, and all of them have changed coaches twice since the end of the 2013 season. (Vanderbilt is the only one of those four programs to have had only one coaching change since 2014 or a coaching change initiated by its previous coach leaving for another job; Tennessee is the only one to have changed coaches three times since 2012.)

If Kentucky is within earshot of the division’s penthouse, it may also seem far removed from where its other residents live because they have recently stayed near the ground floor.

And, well: If Kentucky is really within earshot of the division’s penthouse, wouldn’t it have had more success against Florida of late?

The Wildcats’ 2018 win over Florida was not a fluke in the sense that Kentucky did not deserve to win that game — excellent line play on both sides of the ball enabled Kentucky to control the line of scrimmage all night — and fit into a pattern of fairly close games between the teams. Florida’s 2017 win in Lexington included the Wildcats fully forgetting to cover Gators receivers at multiple important points; its 2019 win turned on Kyle Trask stepping up in relief of an injured Feleipe Franks. Both were one-touchdown games, too.

But Florida went 4-7 in 2017, and in those 2018 and 2019 meetings, the Gators had not become what they now are under Dan Mullen. And Florida’s 34-10 win in 2020 was a snoozer and a rout — much like most of Florida’s wins over the Wildcats during the Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain eras that were relative lulls for the Gators.

Florida needed overtime to beat Kentucky in 2014 — in a contest that led to Kentucky fans getting really upset about a supposedly uncalled delay of game — and won close games in Lexington in 2015 and 2017. The other five games in which the Gators saw the Wildcats with Muschamp or McElwain on the sidelines went to Florida by a combined score of 155-24, more in line with that 2020 meeting and most of the pre-Muschamp games during that long winning streak.

Now, the Gators are on a 14-game streak of 400-plus yards of total offense that includes two meetings with Alabama and one each with Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M; they have been held under 20 points just once since a 38-17 loss to Missouri on November 3, 2018, and have been held to fewer than four touchdowns just once in the last 20 games — that total coming from a Cotton Bowl in which Florida was without Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney and benched Trask after a poor start to let Emory Jones get more reps.

There is an argument that Kentucky, too, is making strides and improving. Its plucking of offensive coordinator Liam Coen from the Sean McVay tree and former Penn State quarterback Will Levis from the transfer portal has already made a passing offense that has been atrocious at least respectable. The Wildcats were also good to great on defense in 2018 and 2019, allowing 25 or more points zero times in the former season and just thrice in the latter and 30 points zero times over the two campaigns.

But the 2020 Wildcats were a 5-6 team, and just one of those losses came by single digits. 2021 Kentucky’s 4-0 record is a tale of just-good-enough performances in a variety of ways, too: The Wildcats were, er, wildly successful on offense against Louisiana-Monroe and Missouri, two teams with rancid defenses, but more pedestrian against South Carolina and, uh, unranked FCS team Chattanooga; Kentucky’s last three wins are by a combined 18 points, and that 45-10 blasting of Monroe came against a team that has yet to gain 300 yards of total offense in a game and has only beaten Jackson State and Troy.

There are good reasons why Florida is currently fourth in SP+ while Kentucky is 46th.

And those reasons are rooted in the recruiting that continues to improve under Mullen and development that is among the best in the sport. Even at its lowest, Florida regularly recruits better players than Kentucky has access to, and Mullen has shown a knack for bringing in impact players from the transfer portal that dovetails nicely with his staff’s ability to turn potential into excellence.

Kentucky has been impressive at developing players in its own right, to be sure — but Kentucky is starting with players who often don’t get the same sort of pre-college training that Florida products do, and simply does not have as many players to choose from in its home state and region. And though Mullen’s prowess with quarterbacks has been a great advantage for his teams historically, the difference between what he and a Kentucky program that has resorted to converting skill players into quarterbacks in run-heavy offenses offer to prep throwers is even starker.

Kentucky arguably caught up to Florida by getting to a new standard of play for its program in post-Bear Bryant history, but it did so while the Gators were lagging well behind their own recent standards. And though the Wildcats may be about to leap to another plateau, Florida has arguably leapfrogged them.

Much remains to be seen from these teams in this year, obviously, including the results of their meeting on the field on this Saturday night. But while it’s possible this game will be another close contest, it also seems possible that Florida is soaring past heights that Kentucky will struggle to reach — and that whatever window Kentucky had for starting a streak of its own may already be shutting.