While the Florida Gators defeated the UMass Minutemen last weekend, the score was a lot closer than most people expected. After leading 10-7 at halftime, the Gators scored 14 unanswered points to defeat the Minutemen 24-7.
For the Kentucky Wildcats, they were up 35-17 after halftime at home against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Then the Golden Eagles scored 27 unanswered points for the 44-35 come-from-behind victory on the road in Lexington.
Now Kentucky and Florida will meet in Week 2 in both teams’ SEC opener. The Wildcats will attempt to get their first win over the Gators since 1986. Kentucky hasn’t defeated Florida in Gainesville since 1979.
Florida narrowly escaped the upset bid last season, scraping by with a 14-9 win. The Gators are 49-17 all-time against the Wildcats.
Kentucky at Florida
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Florida -16.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Drew Barker
The one bright spot for the Wildcats last weekend was the play of Barker. Last week against Southern Miss, the sophomore threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns while completing 62.5 percent of his passes.
This week, Barker and the Kentucky offense will face a Florida defense that will have its best cornerback back from suspension, Jalen Tabor. Florida head coach Jim McElwain suspended both Tabor and tight end C’yontai Lewis last month after a practice altercation on Aug. 16.
Barker had a subpar second half against Southern Miss as he threw for only 36 yards and an interception and no touchdowns. Kentucky will need to see the Barker that was electric in the first half against Southern Miss if the Wildcats have any shot to pull off the upset.
2. Florida Offense
Last season, it was the Gators' offense that let them down in games against Florida State, Alabama and Michigan. If the team wants to take the next step in the SEC, that side of the ball will need to make a tremendous improvement.
In the opener against UMass, the Florida offense only scored two touchdowns against likely one of the worst defenses the team will play this season. Kicker Eddy Pineiro scored nine of the team’s 24 points last Saturday, so the Gators' offense will need to move the ball better against the Wildcats.
McElwain knows that Kentucky will pose more of a challenge in Week 2, so he is hoping his offensive line can step up.
“We’ve got to challenge our guys up front to control the line of scrimmage a little bit,” McElwain said. “This is a lot bigger team front-wise that we’ll play this week. My challenge to the guys up front is not only do your job and do your assignment but let’s do it at a high tempo and an energy to create some spark offensively.”
3. Kentucky Defense
The major reason for Kentucky’s epic collapse last week against Southern Miss was the play of its already-maligned defense. The Wildcats allowed a total of 520 total yards and 44 points to the Golden Eagles, a team from Conference USA.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops was hired because of his reputation from his time as Florida State’s defensive coordinator, but the Wildcats have failed to improve on that side on the ball during his tenure.
In 2013, Kentucky gave up 31.2 points and 427 yards per game. A year later, those numbers were 31.3 and 407. Last season, the Wildcats did show some improvement, from a numbers standpoint, as th defense yielded 27.4 points and 394 yards per game.
With all of the playmakers the SEC boasts, teams need to have at least an average defense. Looking at Kentucky’s statistics over the last three seasons, and it is easy to see why the team has yet to make a bowl appearance under Stoops.
Kentucky has come close to ending its 29-game losing streak against Florida the last two seasons. In both 2014 and ‘15, the Wildcats fell to the Gators by fewer than seven points.
Expect Florida to get pressure on quarterback Drew Barker and force him into making poor decisions. His counterpart, Luke Del Rio, won’t need to be perfect against the Wildcats, but he will just need to be efficient, much like how he was against the Minutemen in his Gators debut.
Kentucky should keep things close until the fourth quarter, but Florida kicker Eddy Pineiro will wind up being the difference in a close game.
Prediction: Florida 27, Kentucky 24
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.