It’s a new year and a new era for the Florida-Kentucky rivalry. After Mark Stoops Wildcats beat the Gators in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last season, ending a 31-year win streak by UF, the narrative around the most lopsided game in college football changed.
Now the Gators travel to Lexington, looking to avenge the loss while not focusing primarily on revenge. They’re looking to extend their win streak to 3-0 and open up their SEC—and more importantly, SEC East—slate with a crucial win.
Before the 7pm kickoff on Saturday, here are five last things to remember.
One Thing to Remember
Kentucky’s defense is still stout. After the departure of edge rusher Josh Allen to the NFL, it’s easy to think the defense has fallen off but the Cats returned much of their front line and have a strong linebacker corps in the middle. That corps is led by veteran Kash Daniels. The senior has nine tackles and an interception, numbers slightly below average but it’s his off the field leadership that has kept this defense point in the right direction. The Cats gave up only 49 rushing yards to Eastern Michigan, an area where the Gators offense has struggled thus far.
One Florida Player to Remember
Shawn Davis has had a sneaky great two games to open his junior season. Filling in while Jeawon Taylor recovers from injury and Brad Stewart served suspensions, Davis stepped in next to Donovan Stiner to take significant more snaps at safety. He’s had eight tackles, a quarterback hurry and a pass break up through the first two games. His tackle for loss on the opening play against UT-Martin set the tone for the shutout game. But it’s his pressure on the backend that has really helped him elevate his game. Davis credits coach Ron English and staff for giving him confidence to play smarter and faster, not relying just on his wrecking ball hitting ability. “They saw something in me that I didn’t really see in myself,” says Davis. “It made me feel like ‘Oh, since they see it in me, I have to play to a higher level’.”
One Kentucky Player to Remember
Sawyer Smith has the weight of Big Blue Nation on his shoulders now. The Troy transfer has had the starting quarterback role thrust upon him with the season ending injury to Terry Wilson. Smith isn’t as much a mobile threat as Wilson—he’s only rushed once for five yards this season—but can attack the Gators secondary through the air. The best news for Florida is that he’s only thrown nine passes all season. They can attack early and rattle him against his first SEC defensive line as a starter. The bad news for Florida is that he’s only thrown nine passes all season. There’s a lot of unknowns around the junior; like will he average the 62.9% completion rate that he did as a sophomore at Troy. Or will be cripple under the blitz heavy defense Grantham is sure to bring? He’s the Wildcat wildcard here and could be the difference maker in a close Kentucky win or a blowout Gator win.
One Big Question
Can quarterback Feleipe Franks be the game changer? Head coach Dan Mullen has been inspiring more and more confidence in the passer and he could use a break out game to convert wayward naysayers. This could be that game. It sounds weird to say he needs a breakout game the week after he went 25-27 and two touchdowns. But doing something along those same lines against a SEC defense will really say he’s here to make some noise. Against this Cats defense—specifically the aforementioned linebacker corps—and with the Gators offensive line still struggling to establish the run game, this could very well be the game Franks has to take over and win through the air.
One Last Prediction
As much as the Florida players want to say they aren’t dwelling too much on last years loss, it’s on their minds. It can’t not be; and it’s already been seen that Mullen likes to build up rivalry games. He’ll do the same this week. The scare Kentucky gave Florida last season is also a good reminder to not take the Cats lightly. That being said, Stoops’ squad also has the monkey off their back now and isn’t afraid of the Gators. They know they can beat UF and are expecting to do so again. At the end of the day though, with a new quarterback and no Benny Snell, I don’t think Kentucky has enough to win this one, although it’ll be close.
The Gators close it out in the 4th quarter and win by a touchdown.