Florida Gators vs. Kentucky Wildcats Complete Game Preview
For more than a quarter of a century, Florida has had the upper hand on Kentucky in their college football rivalry.
Although the Gators come into Lexington, Ky., with a 26-game winning streak against the Wildcats, both teams enter the 64th game of their series under new leadership.
Kentucky is in its first season under new head coach Mark Stoops. Stoops' run as the defensive coordinator at Florida State from 2010-12 has familiarized him quite well with the Gators.
Kentucky opens its SEC season against No. 20 Florida on Saturday and is 1-2 on the season. The Wildcats are coming off a bye week after a 27-13 loss to the top-10 Louisville Cardinals.
Florida entered the 2013 season by coming off its own loss to Louisville, stemming from January's 33-23 Sugar Bowl setback. The Gators sit at 2-1 after opening conference play with a sloppy win against Tennessee at home last weekend.
The victory signaled the end of quarterback Jeff Driskel's season, as Driskel broke his leg to turn the starting reins over to redshirt backup Tyler Murphy. While Murphy rose to the occasion, this weekend's night game against the Wildcats will mark his first college start at quarterback.
When: Saturday, Sept. 28; 7 p.m. ET
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
Radio: Sirius 94, XM 200
Spread: Florida (-13); via TeamRankings.com
Florida Gators' Keys to Victory
Win with defense
With the top-ranked defense in the SEC and a new quarterback, the Florda defense will be what carries Florida to success on Saturday. The Gators pulled out the win against the Vols due in large part to the defense's ability to hold Tennessee to 220 yards of total offense and force six turnovers. UF's Dante Fowler propelled himself to SEC Defensive Player of the Week with his two forced fumbles. Florida's defense will have to continue to grind by halting Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown's up-tempo crew. Toledo's "uptempo offense" proved to be no test in the season opener for the Gators.
Adjust to the skills of the QBs
The Gators are going to have to adjust to quarterbacks on both sides of the ball. In addition to warming up to new starter Tyler Murphy, they'll have to also target the Wildcats' different skill sets at quarterback, too. In QBs Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith, Kentucky has a range of ability. Though Smith has been out with a shoulder injury, this week's practices indicate he could be ready by game time on Saturday, calling for Florida's defense to adapt during the contest.
In his press conference on Monday, Florida head coach Will Muschamp said, via GatorZone.com, that the two are "guys that are both effective in what they do; one more of a passer (Smith) and one more of dual threat (Whitlow), so we need to be very cognizant of who’s in the game at the time."
Kentucky Wildcats' Keys to Victory
Target Tyler Murphy
Murphy is the backup QB who will be getting his first start under the lights at an SEC stadium away from Gainesville, Fla.. Saying that Murphy will be under pressure is an understatement. Murphy did have a solid, headline-grabbing performance against Tennessee last week, but even veteran Jeff Driskel had trouble managing the Florida offense this season. The Wildcats possess the league's top performers in tackles and sacks, and Murphy and his offense will be the perfect prey.
Learn from Louisville
While Kentucky lost to Top 10 entry Louisville, the fact that the Wildcats didn't get blown out says something about the potential of this year's team compared to those of the past.
Kentucky’s defense gave the team a chance against seventh-ranked Louisville today...There were some encouraging signs. The defense seemed to rattle star Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater in the first half and held the Cards to 153 yards and 10 points before the break.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown pinned the offense's inability to make "routine plays" for the loss. But as bye weeks allow Kentucky for more time to get back to basics, the Wildcats could make strides to put up a fight against the Gators by mending issues from their last time out, as in cutting down on dropped passes.
Florida Players to Watch
Dante Fowler, Jr. (BUCK, So.)
Fowler has emerged as a key piece to the Gators top-notch defense this season, most notably in his performance against Tennessee. Against the Vols, Fowler forced the first two fumbles of his career along with a fumble recovery and a sack to nab SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
In his press conference on Monday, via GatorZone.com, Florida coach Will Muschamp said that Fowler is "a guy that continues to improve, play well, played much better than he did the previous time out, a guy that can be a very disruptive player for us."
Tyler Murphy (QB, Redshirt Jr.)
All eyes will be on "Murph" Saturday as the Gators' quarterback rings in his first game as the new starter following Jeff Driskel's season-ending injury. He stepped up big for Floria in its win over Tennessee, completing eight of 14 passes for 134 yards with one TD. Murphy rushed 10 times for 84 yards and exhibited smarts in the pocket.
During his meeting with the media on Monday, via GatorVision.com, Murphy admitted that he'll certainly have some nerves in Lexington, Ky., but added, "Once I get hit, I think I'll be fine."
Kentucky Players to Watch
Za'Darious Smith (DE, Jr.)
The 6'6, 254-pound East Mississippi Community College transfer joined the Wildcats in January, but he's been quick to prove his value to Kentucky. Smith is No. 1 in the SEC and No. 3 nationally in sacks (4.5), averaging 1.5 per game. Smith's three-sack, six-tackle show in a 41-7 win over Miami of Ohio earned him the SEC Defensive Player of the Week by CollegeSportsMadness.com earlier this month. As Murphy settles into his new starting role at QB for Florida, Smith will be his biggest threat between the lines on Saturday.
Avery Williamson (LB, Sr.)
Williamson serves as yet another defensive threat for UK, but unlike Smith, this isn't his first go-round with the Wildcats' defense.
The middle linebacker leads the SEC and is sixth in the country with his 35 tackles. Last season against Florida, Williamson led the Kentucky defense alongside Bud Dupree with eight tackles for the game. Needless to say he's a seasoned veteran with the Wildcats, leading the regulars with 40 starts. Williamson is also on two national watch lists for the country's best linebackers this season.
UK head coach Mark Stoops praised Williamson's leadership during his press conference Monday, via UKAthletics.com:
I think when you look at Avery, you look at how he goes about his work. He's always very serious about what he does. He works extremely hard every day, pays attention in the meetings, is always there. He's been very solid since we've been here and for a long time. I just really appreciate the work he's doing.
What They're Saying
Florida head coach Will Muschamp during his press conference on Monday, via GatorZone.com:
There’s no question any time you go on the road, it’s a little different... It’s our first night game. You’re going to have a lot of young players for the first time with a lot of idle time on their hands as opposed to just getting up, eating and going to the stadium and playing, so the older guys I’ll rely on to really help them through that process and understanding. I sit there all week and think about what can go wrong, and that’s one of the things on my mind right now.
Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy during his media session on Monday, via GatorVision.com:
If we lose this game, we'll have taken a step back from reaching our goal which is to play in Atlanta. Coach Muschamp is always preaching to us about nameless, faceless opponents. Kentucky is a good team. We all know that they had a good game two weeks ago against Louisville and their high-powered offense. We know that we're going to have to get to work right away.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops during his press conference on Monday, via UKAthletics.com:
Their front four, they're very disruptive. Very dominant up front, and their secondary is fabulous. They cover the heck out of you. They're very good players in the secondary... you can't turn the ball over against the Gators. They feast on that. Again, they're very good and very disruptive defensively, but you can't turn it over. You've got to be very smart and very conscious of the ball.
Wildcats linebacker Avery Williamson on the losing streak against the Gators on Tuesday, via Courier-Journal.com:
We've had some close battles. It just hasn't happened yet. It's long overdue. Hopefully, it's going to be this year... It's a great opportunity (to play against UF in Tyler Murphy's first QB start) because we can get a lot of pressure on him and really get his game thrown off. It's a huge opportunity for us, so we really have to take advantage of it.
History and talent will be on Florida's side on Saturday. The Gators shut out the Wildcats, 38-0, last season, and despite the potential that the Wildcats are starting to flex this year, they're not yet at a point to overcome an elite SEC defense that's showing no signs of slowing down.
As in the first chunk of Florida's wins this season, it'll be the Gators' defense shutting down the Wildcats for a fast, physical victory.
Prediction: Florida 20, Kentucky 3