Posted: 1:00 p.m. Friday, June 7, 2013
By Neil Shulman
Before I begin with the Kentucky game preview, let's quickly run through my projections so far.
Now on to week four, and the...
2012 season: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
Coach: Mark Stoops, first season (0-0)
Last result vs. Florida: Florida 38, Kentucky 0 (2012)
Series record vs. Florida: Florida 46, Kentucky 17
Game date: Saturday, September 28, 2013
Game location: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Kentucky
The Kentucky Wildcats arey the least dangerous SEC team on the Gators' schedule, no matter how intimidating the name Stoops may sound. Regardless of what you thought of last week's debate about whether or not Tennessee is a rival, there's no arguing the fact that Kentucky is about as threatening as a little cockroach. Florida's won the last 26 games with Kentucky, and the last five by 30-plus points. It promises to get little better this year.
This offense is in need of a major overhaul, the kind that typically takes three years to implement. For starters, the Wildcats have to settle on a QB. Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith will be favored to be the final two, but neither has really done much to give their coaches confidence in them in big games.
Like the Vols, the Wildcats' best receiving options are their running backs, Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders. They're also decent runners, but decent won't cut it against the likes of the Gators, who have constructed a defensive pipeline to the NFL under Will Muschamp. But with the horrendous excuse of an offensive line the 'Cats will dress up, Emmitt Smith and Fred Taylor would have trouble running for yardage.
Three linemen return from a unit that was just plain awful last season; it might have been among the worst in college football history without All-SEC selection Larry Warford, who is gone. Offensive line coach John Schlarman will be pulling his hair out trying to mix and match linemen with positions. Darian Smith appears to be the best lineman coming back, and he'll probably anchor the QB's blind side. But after that, Kentucky has a major problem on its line.
What is there to possibly do? The Wildcats have no receiving threats coming back, and none coming in except JUCO talent Javess Blue. You have to be able to pass at least some if you want to beat the Gators, and a lot if you want to run the offense that Mark Stoops wants to run.
Stoops brought in Neal Brown from Texas Tech as his offensive coordinator to run a variation of the Air Raid that Kevin Sumlin ran to perfection with Johnny Manziel (except against the Gators, that is). One of the keys to succeeding in that offense is getting your tailbacks the ball, so look for lots and lots of passes to George and Sanders. That's assuming the Gators don't sack whomever wins the QB job, which is another problem: None of the QBs in contention are particularly appealing. So, in short, expect lots of runs and lots of quick tosses to the running backs in the flat, and maybe even on a deep pattern.
Invade the backfield with as many players as possible. Once the Gators do penetrate the Wildcats' line, they've effectively shut down their entire offense. They can then harass the QB, stuff Sanders and George, force bad decisions and turnovers, and anything else their hearts desire. While this is true for every team Florida faces, the reality is that Florida is far more likely to actually have this off the charts level of success against Kentucky, and thus, this much practice of technique against what equates to tackling dummies in preparation for the meat of their SEC schedule- namely, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina
Kentucky's defense actually isn't half bad. It's more like 90 percent bad, but it's not the complete pigsty the offense is. And Stoops' initial recruiting class should be able to contribute right away ... because the rest of the defense is so bad, not because the recruits are particularly good.
Unlike on offense, there are some bright spots for Kentucky on defense: Corners J.D. Harmon and Nate Willis, an incoming JUCO transfer, combine with veteran defensive linemen Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to form a defense that you have to work around strengths to beat, as opposed to picking the weakness you want to expose. Kentucky gave up 5.54 yards per play in 2012, but that number is seriously skewed by a great showing against Samford (102 yards allowed); in the 11 games the 'Cats played against FBS competition, they gave up 5.78 yards per play, which would have slotted them between Wake Forest and Illinois in the national rankings.
In order to win at a place like Kentucky, you have to be bold, risky, and aggressive. Stoops is a defensive guy, so that's where you will see the risks taken, with lots of middle blitzes and sending guys wide to seal off the edges. Florida's strength is its running game, so that's what Kentucky will try to stop first. Plus, the 'Cats have talented corners, and plenty of experience up front. So look for Stoops to try to stop the part of Florida's offense that he has a better chance at stopping, and dare Jeff Driskel to pass.
Is there really such a thing as a real-life instant replay? Florida's offense is mostly the same physical group that bullied Kentucky all over the field last year; until Kentucky can prove that they can stop it, why bother with anything else? Florida's offensive line might have a little trouble early, but it's nothing that running the defense around can't solve.
The Kentucky game produced arguably Driskel's best passing effort (18-for-27, 203 yards, a touchdown and a pick) a year ago, so while Florida is going to try to establish the run early with Matt Jones, I would expect Brent Pease to eventually open it up and air it out. Plus, Pease never did hang 50 on the Wildcats, and he might still have that vendetta against Kentucky, despite a new coach coming in and his typical coachspeak indicating that he doesn't.
Jeff Driskel vs. J.D. Harmon and Nate Willis. There's no doubt Driskel is going to be throwing lots of footballs against Kentucky, like he did last year. And he had a lot of success in last year's game, but he also threw a pick. If Kentucky wants any shot at winning, they're going to have to intercept Driskel a few times. Knowing Harmon's and Willis's desperation is key to Driskel's success, so he has to watch out for them jumping routes, and maybe sell a pump fake here or there. Basically, if he's careful, he'll be fine.
The team that new Florida wide receivers coach Joker Phillips never got to turn around gets a chance to go show him up on his old stomping grounds in Lexington. That's more of a dream than a possibility, but you never know. But objectively speaking, let's face it, Kentucky is a mess. They have no shot at upending a team that's got big dreams, big players, and a really big winning streak going. Kentucky may be that desperate to end the streak, but the Gators are more focused on not getting their entire season sent up in flames. And they're better.
Florida shouldn't have any trouble making it 27 in a row.
Florida 42, Kentucky 13.