Showdowns between unbeaten teams in the SEC, well... not to steal a line from the conference marketing department, but it just means more. Isn’t that right? Well whether that line makes you cringe or peacock with pride, it’s true that Florida and Kentucky will match up with perfect records this Saturday to kick off conference play.
The Florida Gators have been a media darling so far this year, having started the 2019 college football season with a showcase 24-20 win over Miami a week before everybody else got things cranked up. Meanwhile, Kentucky is coming off its first 10-win season since 1977 and has started out with a pair of wins over Toledo and Eastern Michigan. Considering all the starters they have to replace, those two games were a great way to get the new roles figured out and build up some early confidence.
But this is where the easy road for the Wildcats takes a big turn.
Florida at Kentucky
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Florida -8.5
When Florida Has the Ball
Everything starts with quarterback Feleipe Franks for the Gators as the 6-foot-6 slinger has played up and down through two games. But the stat sheet shows that he has missed on just 12 passes so far this season, going 42-for-54 for 524 yards. Last year, Franks connected on just 58 percent of his throws, compared to 78 percent so far in 2019. After throwing two picks vs. the Hurricanes, he did not have a turnover against FCS opponent UT Martin, as the Gator offense looked a bit more efficient in their 45-0 home win over the Skyhawks. Franks must continue his positive steps here.
After giving up 24 points and 377 yards to Toledo and 334 passing yards to Eastern Michigan, obviously Kentucky's defense is a work in progress. The Wildcats only had four returning starters from the SEC’s No. 2 defense a year ago, so you know there is some nervous Nellies in the UK defensive coaches meeting rooms. They rank 69th in the FBS in defense and that is after facing two MAC squads. The Gators will be a whole different ball of wax in comparison to what the Cats have seen so far.
Keep an eye on third down for both sides as both teams convert less than half of such opportunities. But if the Gators want to ascend to SEC contender status they’ll have to be more clutch when it matters. Part of that comes with the maturation of Franks behind center. The Wildcats have a decent front seven on D, led by middle linebacker Kash Daniel. If that defense can apply the pressure and rattle Franks, then Big Blue has a shot.
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Man, this has been a bad season already for the Wildcats when talking about the team infirmary. Before the season, backup QB Nik Scalzo was lost for the year to a knee injury, then in their win over EMU, they lost starting QB Terry Wilson to a season-ending knee injury. That hurts, in so many ways. Wilson was a multi-dimensional weapon for the Cats and his loss is a serious blow as a leader for this team. Troy transfer Sawyer Smith came in and went 5-for-9 for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Smith started seven games for the Trojans last year, throwing for 1,669 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Benny Snell Jr. was a first-team All-SEC running back last season and was the biggest hole to fill in this Wildcat offense. But look at what Kavosiey Smoke has been able to do so far. He has only had 18 carries in the two games but is averaging 9.4 yards per attempt and has busted off touchdown darts of 32 and 40 yards. If he can carry a little bit more of a load for the Cats, while also relieving some pressure from Smith’s shoulders, this could give the Wildcats a chance to make it a four-quarter game.
Ooh, but that Gator defense. Eeeee-yah! They had 10 sacks vs. Miami and 16 tackles for a loss overall. They added five more sacks and 10 more TFLs against UTM last Saturday, raising their totals to 15 and 26 respectively. That’s some teeth there. Going up against UK’s inexperienced offensive line this week, you know the Gators are going to sell out to get to Smith. Look for pressure from all different directions when Smith drops back to pass this week.
The Wildcats broke a 31-year winless streak vs. the Gators last season with a 27-16 victory in the Swamp. The last time the Big Blue took two straight from UofF was 1976-77. But the last time the Gators were here in Lexington Franks came off the bench to lead two TD drives in the final eight minutes to pull off a 28-27 win.
This time, Franks is developing into THE stud that the Gator coaching staff was hoping he would become. This will be another step in his maturation process.
Prediction: Florida 27, Kentucky 9
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.