I may be the resident outsider here at KSR (I know, I know, I’ve started roughly 11 straight articles with the same catchphrase), but you don’t need to be a UK football historian to know that we’ve got an important Saturday coming up for the Kentucky football team. You also don’t need to be a UK football historian to know that it’s been a looooooooong time since UK beat Florida. Like three decades and two different George Bush’s in the White House long, a stretch that spans the entire Spurrier/Zook/Meyer/Muschamp and McElwain eras, and then some. So yeah, it’s been a while.
But while I’d never claim to be a UK football historian, I’ll gladly admit to watching just about as much football as anyone in America on a typical Saturday, and on replays throughout the week. And after watching three straight Saturday’s of college football, and spending plenty of time studying the ancillary stuff that comes with the sport — schedules, recruiting, you name it – I’m ready to tell you one thing: This is the year that Kentucky beats Florida.
Remember, I’m an outsider, and this isn’t some “Kentucky by 60” homer pick straight out of those old Saturday Night Live/Chicago Bears skits. Ending history won’t be easy for Kentucky, and if they’re to snap this streak, it will — like every SEC game — be hard fought and come down to the little things. But unlike most years, Kentucky doesn’t need a prayer and a miracle to compete. As best I can tell, they just need to play their game.
The first and most important thing to consider entering Saturday is something pretty simple, and you don’t need to be a young Nick Saban to see it: This Florida team is awful. I’ve been watching college football for over 20 years now, and I’ve never seen any Florida team as untalented as this one. Don’t get me wrong, they have pieces, specifically on the defensive line, but not only is this not a “vintage” Florida team, I think a legitimate case could be made that they’re the fourth best team in their own state (behind Florida State, Miami and South Florida), and somewhere around the 10th best team in the SEC (if not worse). The fact that they’re somehow ranked in the Top 25 right now is a sports travesty that historians will look back on and scratch their heads about for centuries to come (slight exaggeration), like when the U.S. lost the gold medal to the USSR in the 1972 Olympics, or when John Calipari lost Coach of the Year to Tony Bennett the year Kentucky went undefeated in the regular season. None of it makes sense. Like, at all.
For those of you who haven’t been paying close attention to the Gators, it started in Week 1 against Michigan, when Florida put up just 192 yards of total offense, and where 14 of their 17 points came off pick sixes. But then it went up another level last week. While so much of the focus in Florida’s win over Tennessee was on the final play, what everyone needs to pay attention to is that the Gators had no business even being in that game in the first place.
Florida was once again out-gained and Tennessee also threw two absolutely devastating interceptions. One was on the goal line, on what should have been a simple hand-off for a touchdown, and the other was deep in their own territory which was ultimately returned for a pick-six TD. So in essence, not only did Tennessee give up six points because they couldn’t punch the ball in from the one-yard line, but they also handed Florida 14 points on the pick-six and final play of the game. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Tennessee could have won that game by three touchdowns and should have won it by double-figures. Yet they lost. As the old saying goes, “It’s great to be a Florida Gator.” Especially when you’re going up against Butch Jones.
Really though this isn’t just about Florida being bad, but — in my opinion — Kentucky being better than most people realize. Again, I’m not going full-fledged homer “We’re making the playoff, baby” mode. But I also believe that — based on what I’ve seen from them, as well as the rest of the SEC — eight wins is absolutely in play. Maybe nine if everything breaks right.
And that South Carolina game really told you everything you needed to know about Kentucky football this year. If you didn’t watch the game and just saw the final score you’d think to yourself, “Oh, what a solid win for Kentucky.” But, if you actually sat down and watched the game you saw something completely different: A game which, after the first few possessions, Kentucky absolutely dominated. Of the Gamecocks 13 points, six came on the first play of the game (literally), and the final seven came late in the fourth quarter when South Carolina basically went to a two-minute drill offense and UK went to a prevent defense. Sure UK was helped by some shoddy special teams from South Carolina, but for the most part they dominated that game in every way a team could.
More than just the final score, you know what impressed me most about that victory though? Kentucky’s poise. Again, they fell down 6-0 after less than a minute of play, and from there, you know what happened next? Kentucky threw an interception and then had a fumble on their next two possessions. The score could have easily been 20-0 after less than five minutes of play.
But instead, Kentucky does what a poised, veteran team that’s been there before does: They stayed calm. They forced a three-and-out (which was followed by a missed field goal) and the next possession forced an interception. Then they slowly went about picking apart South Carolina’s defense with a balance of short passes, runs up the middle and misdirection (right up until the end when Kentucky was trying to milk clock and they went non-stop Wildcat, I actually thought the play-calling was really good). They also played solid defense; take out that opening, 68-yard touchdown pass and they gave up under 300 yards the rest of the game. They also made the biggest plays when they needed to, including a late fourth-and-goal stop. This defense is way better than anyone gives them credit for. Don’t be fooled because of the “Kentucky” on the jersey. They can play with just about anyone.
And ultimately, the more I think about it, the more I realize that might be the reason right there why the national types (which I still consider myself) aren’t picking Kentucky to beat Florida on Saturday is, because, well… it’s Kentucky and Florida. History says Florida should win this game and Kentucky should lose. Except here’s the thing: If you simply took the names off the front of the jerseys and flipped on film of these two teams, who do you think would have the edge? Exactly. The fact that this line opened as Florida favored by five in Vegas and has been bet down to Florida favored by just 2.5 points proves that theory.
In the end, it won’t be easy and it might not be pretty. But for the first time in 31 years, Kentucky will beat Florida on Saturday.
Even an outsider can see it coming.
Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”