JOE COX: Ball Security Pivotal as Kentucky Tries to End Historic Streak
Four times in last week’s season-opener against Central Michigan, Kentucky turned the football over. Once it was an awkward piece of equipment, as QB Terry Wilson’s arm pad caused a fumble. Once, it was a desperation throw to the end zone which a CMU player snagged as he fell out of bounds. Once, it was a horrific underthrow right to a CMU linebacker. And once it was WR Lynn Bowden coughing the ball up straight into the air for a CMU touchdown. Kentucky fumbled the ball three other times, but was fortunate enough to recover it, much as they recovered the game, 35-20, over CMU.
The margin for error Saturday night is virtually none. Kentucky can’t fumble five times or throw a pair of interceptions. This week, it’s time to take on Florida and history. Kentucky last beat Florida in 1986, when Bill Ransdell was the UK QB. Ransdell can now buy the senior-priced coffee at McDonald’s restaurant for breakfast. Kentucky last won in Florida’s venerable Swamp in 1979 with walk-on Juan Portela at quarterback. When Portela was born, Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States.
Tim Couch couldn’t do it, Jared Lorenzen couldn’t do it, Andre Woodson couldn’t do it, so can Terry Wilson, who looked more like Terry Turnover than Terry Touchdown, somehow be the first QB in 32 years to beat the Gators?
Maybe, but he’ll need to keep a better hold on the football.
The Gators went 4-7 last season and fired Jim McElwain, who had won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016. This was only a couple years after Will Muschamp met the same fate. Basically, Florida has been between a rock and a hard place intermittently since Urban Meyer decided he would rather peddle half-truths in Columbus than Gainesville.
But Florida is in more capable hands now than in recent years, as Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was lured to Starkville, where he was once offensive coordinator under Meyer. Mullen put up an 8-1 mark against UK at Mississippi State, with the lone loss coming on Austin MacGinnis’s buzzer beating field goal in 2016.
Florida won their opener against Charleston Southern 53-6 last Saturday. Sophomore QB Feleipe Franks, who struggled throughout 2017 and was pulled from the game against Kentucky last year, took the starting job and passed for 219 yards and five touchdowns. The Gators did allow 5.2 yards per carry to an FCS Charleston Southern team and was without several significant players, especially on defense, who missed the game due to suspension. Included in those were DL Cece Jefferson and LB David Reese, both of whom were all-SEC preseason picks.
That said, Florida is a two-touchdown favorite, and the No. 25 team in the nation is expected to extend its winning streak over UK to 32 in a row.
UK won despite going minus 4 in turnovers and generally looking completely inept in the passing game last week. The turnovers have to stop. If Kentucky can hold on to the ball and establish Benny Snell or A.J. Rose on the ground, the offense could chew clock and put up some points.
Defensively, Kentucky needs another week of avoiding the big play. Other than a first quarter pass where Josh Allen was caught out of position, Kentucky’s defense was very solid against Central Michigan. That said, Florida has next-level athletes like Franks, WR Van Jefferson (who transferred from Ole Miss), and WR Tyrie Cleveland. Back Jordan Scarlett, who saw little time in the opener, is one of the more underrated rushers in the SEC. Franks showed signs of happy feet last season in Lexington when UK broke down the pocket.
There are many reasons why this game isn’t a good fit for Kentucky, but the solid play of the defense and the ability to run the football on offense suggest a closer game than many expect. Still, at the end of the day, a win over Florida is something that will have to be seen to be believed. The guess is that it won’t be seen this year.
Florida 27, UK 24.
Time for a weekly run around the rest of the league…
Mississippi State 38, Kansas State 17
Vanderbilt 38, Nevada 21
Alabama 58, Arkansas State 7
Georgia 42, South Carolina 17
Ole Miss 45, Southern Illinois 21
Tennessee 42, ETSU 13
LSU 38, Southeastern Louisiana 0
Missouri 51, Wyoming 24
Clemson 38, Texas A&M 24
Colorado State 28, Arkansas 27
Auburn 49, Alabama State 10
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written seven books, with the eighth to come in 2019. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," was released in February 2018 and can be ordered 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.