JOE COX: The Winner of Saturday Night's Kentucky-Florida Showdown is .......
This one is for the Kentucky football fans.
If the UK fan base had a mascot, it would be Charlie Brown, running at the football game after game, year after year, only for a smug Lucy to pull it away and let him crash to the ground again. Kentucky football fans come back year after year after year. Often angry, sometimes impatient, they still dare to hope against hope that this year could be the first season of finishing on top the SEC in 40 years, could place Kentucky in a top-flight bowl game for the first time in over 65 years, could be the first season that ends in a Kentucky national championship.
Sometimes, Kentucky football fans adopt a defeatist mentality. If you expect Lucy to pull the football away, maybe you don’t run quite as hard to kick it, and maybe it doesn’t hurt quite as bad when you fall. In this, the fifth year of the Mark Stoops era, the general mood has been cautious optimism. Kentucky will win six or seven games, the logic goes. That would be a good year, not a great year, but still a building block toward far-away days of competing for the SEC, of belonging in the Top 25.
One thing that all but the most optimistic fans would not hope for was a win over Florida. Since 1986, Kentucky has taken on the Gators every season—and lost every season. Some were heart-breaking losses. Some were 65-0 or 73-7. And while Kentucky fell into mediocrity, Florida soared to national prominence. Since 1986, Kentucky has no SEC titles, no East division titles (divisions came in for the 1992 season), and no nine win seasons. During that same period, Florida has three national titles, eight SEC titles, and 14 East division titles.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Lucy pulling the football away. Charlie Brown has gotten a lot tougher. Lucy also seems to be a little slower on the trigger—in scoring touchdowns, in playing fundamentally smart football, in being a first-class opponent. Saturday night in Lexington, Charlie Brown is running at the football again. Maybe—just maybe—this is the year he kicks it. Maybe the Wildcats will start 6-0, maybe they’ll contend for, if not outright WIN the SEC East. And there are more, bigger, crazier maybes. But those maybes all start on Saturday night. Can the Wildcats beat the Gators?
Who They Are
The winners of 30 straight games over the Wildcats, the Florida Gators have looked amazingly pedestrian in 2017. They are 1-1, with a last-second win over Tennessee balancing out an embarrassing neutral-field loss to Michigan. Florida won that Tennessee game with a last-second 63-yard touchdown pass from freshman QB Feleipe Franks to sophomore WR Tyrie Cleveland. That was their second offensive touchdown of the season.
Florida is an offensive train wreck. They have averaged 3.2 yards per carry on the ground, with one of their games being against the Tennessee defense which last played the run well sometime in the distant past.
Franks is a talented athlete, but has never played a true road game in his career. The Gators’ best rusher, Jordan Scarlett, and best receiver, Antonio Callaway, are both suspended. The Gator offensive line has paved the way for the next to worst offense in the SEC, and has allowed eight sacks in two games.
Defensively, Florida is still formidable. The Gators have three DEFENSIVE touchdowns this season, all on pick-sixes, although cornerback Duke Dawson, who has one, is questionable for the Kentucky game. Florida can also get to the passer, with six sacks in two games. Veterans like Jordan Sherit and Jabari Zuniga are big, strong, and experienced. Less impressive are the tackles and linebackers—UF has allowed 4.9 yards per carry on the ground so far.
Florida’s special teams are superb. Eddy Pineiro is one of the strongest-legged kickers in the league, as is punter Johnny Townsend. Every kickoff from Pineiro this season has been a touchback, and Cleveland is a dangerous return man.
Where Kentucky Is
The Kentucky offense didn’t catch fire against South Carolina, but it was efficient, and enabled the defense to grind out a victory. Offensively, Kentucky is running for 3.9 yards per carry, and Stephen Johnson has completed almost 63% of his passes with just one interception. It’s not always pretty, but it is effective. Kentucky is connecting on 43% of third-down conversions and holding opponents to 30%.
Defensively, this hardly resembles the Kentucky team that allowed 200+ rushing yards to Southern Mississippi, Florida, and New Mexico State to open the 2016 season. No one has approached 100 yards on the ground, and they’re doing so at a 2.2 yard per carry clip. Kentucky has allowed 869 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air, but the Wildcats also have three interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
So many times in the life of UK football fans, things have aligned for a step forward, only for UK to instead make a step back. But many of those positives were illusory, the product of gimmick systems, unsustainable efforts from players, or downright luck. This time around, Kentucky is doing the little things that good football teams do.
Florida is more talented and they have history on their side. But history doesn’t beat good football teams. Not making mistakes, cashing in on an inexperienced opponent, and frankly, having 63,000+ fans who are hungry to end this streak will make a difference.
I’ve predicted it before, and I’ve sworn off predicting it again. Maybe we’re all Charlie Brown. Some day, we’re going to kick the darn football. It might as well be Saturday.
Kentucky 28, Florida 27
Other SEC Predictions
Who else do I like in the SEC on Saturday? Glad you asked…
Arkansas 24, Texas A&M 10
Tennessee 42, UMass 7
South Carolina 28, Louisiana Tech 21
Alabama 38, Vanderbilt 0
Mississippi State 31, Georgia 24
LSU 35, Syracuse 6
Auburn 42, Missouri 10
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.