With one third of their regular season done and dusted, the Florida Gators do not have a particularly difficult schedule the last two thirds of this season, especially by SEC standards.
Playing in the relatively woeful East, the Gators still have slated matchups against a mediocre Missouri, rebuilding South Carolina, and a truly abysmal Vanderbilt team. Their two remaining non-conference games are against FCS Samford and maybe the worst Florida State in modern history. Outside of the Cocktail Party, Florida will be favored in every game it plays the rest of the year.
That’s why Saturday in Lexington is so important.
This is not a sleeper game like in years past. If anybody inside Florida’s program thinks this is a trap game, I’ll be surprised; if anyone outside the program thinks so, they haven’t been paying attention to the shifting dynamics in the SEC East. Kentucky is a very good and potentially great team in 2021.
Saturday will go a long way in determining just how close they are to great, but the Wildcats are already 4-0 and have a legitimate shot at their first 10-win regular season in 44 years. Mark Stoops has built a consistently competitive program that is easily the third-best in the division right now — and it can challenge Florida or Georgia for a spot in Atlanta so long as it beats one or both of those titans.
And so road game — in primetime, no less — against an aspirationally great Kentucky team is Florida’s opportunity to prove its performance against Alabama was no fluke and its status as a championship contender is legit. Yes, beating Tennessee was a great response, but that’s a program in transition. The Vols are still two to three years away from making real noise in the conference.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has been building for a decade. Stoops isn’t putting first pieces in place; he’s working with a long-set foundation, and now has one of his most talented teams. If Florida is the team we think it is — a team that’s a missed extra point from overtime with Alabama, a team that can go toe-to-toe with and beat Georgia, a team that can win a national championship — then Saturday is the chance to prove it.
Trips to Lexington have not been easy for the Gators since Stoops took over Kentucky in 2013. The last two trips both ended in late escapes for Florida, with Kentucky’s infamous gaffe on the goal line proving fateful in 2017 and the birth of the Kyle Trask era coming with the comeback he led in 2019.
And Kentucky is not the doormat that Florida used to wipe its feet on. The Wildcats famously broke a 31-game losing streak to Florida in Dan Mullen’s first year in charge. Over the last eight years, Kentucky has kept it a one-score game five times, including all but one time in Lexington.
Winning on the road is difficult, and not a challenge Florida often faces. Its biggest test every year is at a neutral site — which I hope changes someday, but that’s a conversation for another time — and with the SEC East’s lack of quality in recent years, trips to Neyland or Williams-Brice don’t have the same bite as before. Going to a sold-out Kentucky, however, is a legitimately demanding road test, both in terms of the atmosphere and the actual competition on the field. (A lot of the same can be said about the trip to Death Valley to play LSU ... but the Tigers are in an, uh, uncertain spot this season.)
Good teams win big games at home. Great teams win them on the road.
This Saturday is the turning point game for Florida’s 2021 season. If the Gators are to get their rematch with Alabama or finally break through to the College Football Playoff, it hinges on Saturday. Obviously, Georgia is the mountain to climb, but Kentucky is the base camp.
If Florida shows out against the Wildcats, in front of 60,000 hostile fans in a juiced, primetime environment, then it proves it’s a formidable threat to Georgia — and thus to earn a rematch with the Tide.
Yes, a close loss to Alabama two weeks ago was a statement performance in its own right.
But actually winning a big, meaningful game goes a lot further than any “moral victory.”