We’re on to week two as Kentucky will make their first first road trip of the season as they will take on Florida in the conference opener. You know all about the streak as Florida has beaten Kentucky in 31 straight meetings but here you’ll get to know about the 2018 squad.
Dan Mullen returns to try and restore some pride in a program that has fallen on hard times since Tim Tebow left. He’s already brought back the jump pass.
Nuts and Bolts
Let’s start off with the series history. The Gators own a 51-17 lead bolstered by that current win streak. During this run, the average final score has been 40.2-16.6. Only eight games have been decided by one-possession and three of those have occurred in the last four years. Take out the blowout in 2016 and Mark Stoops has three losses by a combined 12 points.
Dan Mullen is now the head coach at Florida after being the shot caller at Mississippi State from 2009-2017. As a head coach. Mullen has a 70-46 record and a 33-39 mark in the SEC.
Against Kentucky, Mullen is 8-1 with an average final score of 34.2-20.8. Four of these nine games have been decided by one-possession.
As a program, Florida has three national championships and eight SEC titles. All of these occurred under two coaches. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer each dominated and they both made the Gators the top football program in the country. Other than that, they’re have been a lot of ups and downs and now the Gators will be on their third head coach since Meyer stepped away.
Out in the desert, Florida is a 14-point favorite with a total of 49. That’s a projected final score of 31.5-17.5. Under Stoops, UK is 2-3 against the spread versus the Gators. Against Mullen, Stoops and UK are 2-2-1 against the spread. In SEC road openers under Stoops, UK is 4-1 against the spread with two straight up wins. Mullen coached teams have covered five straight SEC openers.
The main reason Dan Mullen was brought to Gainesville was to put some pop back into the offense. To do that, you’re going to need good quarterback play.
Mississippi State had an excellent run with Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald lighting up opposing defenses as the Bulldogs averaged over 30 points per game in Mullen’s final four seasons. The biggest reason for this was due to the all-conference caliber play from his quarterbacks and that’s something the Florida faithful is extremely thirsty for.
UF is still looking for answers behind center as John Brantley, Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, Treon Harris, Austin Appleby, and Luke Del Rio all left a ton to be desired. Outside of a short run with Will Grier it has been very pedestrian.
Now it’s Mullen’s turn to take on this problem and his first assignment will be molding Feliepe Franks into a quality quarterback. Franks has all the measurables you could ever want as he stands 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, can run, and has a rocket launcher.
That throw covered approximately 60 yards by just the flick of the wrist. Franks can launch it even farther as he showed in the Hail Mary completion to defeat Tennessee last year.
In his first action, Franks tossed for 219 yards and five touchdowns. His 9.1 average yards per attempt and 66.7% completion percentage were a major step up from his 6.3 and 54.6% as a freshman. Mullen gave Franks a ton of quick reads, RPOs, and play-action throws to build confidence.
Franks can hurt you with his legs as he averaged over seven yards per attempt in his non-sack rush attempts last year. He’s not the bowling ball and home run threat that Nick Fitzgerald and Dak Prescott were, but if he gets some open space he can pick up chunks of yards. He’s not going to run anyone over and could be the most prototypical pocket passer that Mullen has ever coached.
Franks struggled as a redshirt freshman with pressure in his face. He often would start looking at the rush and take his eyes off receivers downfield. He didn’t have the quick twitch to make defenders miss in the pocket and this resulted in sacks.
Kentucky’s pass rush could be able to rattle him on third and longs.
The strength of this group is at running back as Florida has three different backs that have rushed for at least 500 yards in a season. Jordan Scarlett got the start against Charleston Southern and the redshirt junior appeared in his first game since serving a season long suspension in 2017. Lamical Perine enters his junior season as the power runner and he has 11 touchdowns in two seasons. My favorite of the group is sophomore Malik Davis who rushed for 526 yards on a 6.7 yards per carry average as a true freshman. He only played seven games due to injury but he was well on his way to a thousand yard season after rushing for at least 90 yards in four straight games.
Each of Davis, Scarlett, and Perine has showed ability as a pass catcher. The Gators have a really solid trio and UK should expect at least 50 touches from the group.
Perhaps the biggest thing plaguing this offense, outside of quarterback play, has been the lack of difference makers at receiver. However, two impact transfers could make a big difference this season.
Van Jefferson left Ole Miss and Trevon Grimes left Ohio State and both were granted immediate eligibility. They made an impact in week one as they combined for seven catches, 84 yards, and three touchdowns. They could end up being the top pass catching targets.
Mullen has shown a knack for getting the tight ends involved as redshirt sophomore Lucas Krull had two catches and senior C’yontai Lewis did a nice job blocking on the edge. Mullen is known for his creative personnel packages and you can expect to see some two and three tight end sets on Saturday.
Florida has plenty of experience returning at receiver as Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain, Dre Massey, and Josh Hammond are all upperclassmen who can contribute. Kadarius Toney is an x-factor who can be a legit playmaker out of the slot as well as a weapon in the wildcat. He’s currently serving a suspension and Mullen will not confirm if he’ll be eligible for Saturday.
Up front, Florida has quite a bit to work on. Talent is there as consensus five-star Martez Ivey mans the left tackle spot while right guard Fred Johnson and right tackle Jawaan Taylor are NFL prospects. In the opener, the Gators struggled to get push in the running game. Most notably, center Nick Buchanan was constantly pushed off the ball in his first start.
The group did well in pass protection but the ball came out quick and Charleston Southern did not possess capable pass rushers. Quinton Bohanna could have a big mismatch inside and UK’s outside pass rush could really give the Gators trouble.
For the eighth consecutive season, UK will be going up against a Todd Grantham led defense. Grantham runs a 3-4 scheme that relies on pressure. This defense will constantly load the box with numbers and wants to live off negative plays. Big plays will always be available against him but this strategy is betting on getting you in a hole so many times that the big plays you get won’t matter. Break a tackle and you could be off to the races.
Last year at Mississippi State was his best work as the Bulldogs finished 20th in S&P+ and were 13th in success rate. That means teams were always playing behind the chains.
The strength of the defense starts with mike linebacker David Reese and edge defender Cece Jefferson. Neither played in the opener and are both questionable to start on Saturday. However, they are both all-conference caliber performers. These two combined for 35 run stuffs last season (run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage) and they’ll be vital in stopping UK’s ground game.
The next place to look at is the secondary. At corner, CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson both return after starting as rookies. The duo has combined for 20 passes defensed (four interceptions, 16 pass break-ups) in 13 starts. At safety and nickel, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will be used all over the field. The junior has been starting since he was a true freshman and has five interceptions, 10 pass break-ups, and nine tackles for loss in his career.
Up front, Jabari Zuniga has 16.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and 17 quarterback hurries in two seasons. The new staff is super high on Jachai Polite at the same edge spot as Jefferson.
There’s size, speed, and playmaking in the secondary. It’s your typical Florida defense but the Gators are thin at inside linebacker and do not have the dominant interior lineman that we’re used to seeing. The chance for multiple big plays will be there but ball security will be vital.
Special Teams Breakdown
The Gators are breaking in two new kickers this season. Freshman Evan McPherson is taking over placekicking duties and he made all his kicks in his debut. McPherson’s ball came out awfully low on Saturday so the opportunity for a block will be there.
At punter, Tommy Townsend takes over for his brother Johnny and looked really good in his debut. The younger Townsend averaged 44.5 yards per attempt.
Against Charleston Southern, Florida blocked both a field goal and extra point attempt due to pressure up the middle. In the return department, Florida has not shown any explosiveness. I know that’s hard for some of you to believe.
Keys to Victory
For the first time, perhaps since the streak began, UK enters the game against Florida having equal answers in the trenches. Kentucky’s interior offensive line should have it’s way with Florida’s defensive tackles while UK’s nose could take advantage of an inexperienced center and left guard. It’s obvious Kentucky has closed the gap with Florida since Mark Stoops arrived and it’s time to bust down the door. Here is how they get it done.
- Due to scheme, Florida is going to get stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. UK can not get discouraged and must stick with the run. UK’s offensive line should begin to win their battles as the game gets into the second half and Benny Snell, A.J. Rose, and Terry Wilson will each have a chance to make home run plays on this risk it all defense.
- Due to the stacked box, UK must complete some passes early. The crowd is going to be hostile so getting a few first downs will help everyone settle in. Look for UK to get Terry Wilson on the move so he can compete so easy throws.
- This week, more than ever, it will be essential for UK to win on first down. The Wildcats are going to get a heavy dose of the run so Florida can consistently put Franks in manageable late down situations. Getting tackles for loss early will force some advantageous situations where the pass rush can show off. Do this consistently and the turnovers will come.
- The third phase is always vital on the road and UK must find a way to play to a draw. Give Max Duffy time to flip the field, have Grant McKinniss keep the ball inbounds on kickoffs, protect your rear ends off on all field goal/extra point attempts. Do this and Kentucky will have more than a puncher’s chance. Saturday would be a good time for a kickoff return score.
Florida has shredded the swoosh for the jumpman and to me it still seems weird to see MJ on a football jersey. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t cool. However, Dan Mullen looks like a total dweeb with it on.
Florida also has one of the lamest cheers in the SEC with Mr. 2 Bits and only the Gators could make the HBC look like a total loser.