Football games against the Florida Gators have not been kind to the Cats in recent decades. In fact, with very rare exceptions, to refer to Kentucky’s match-ups with Florida as games is probably a bit of a stretch. They have been more akin to public executions. As we all know by now, the Gators have turned beating the Cats into a sadistic annual tradition since 1986. Over the last twenty games, the Gators have managed to just slip by the Cats by an average score of 45 to 16. Some of the beatings incurred along the way should have required a parental guidance warning. In one painful three game stretch, the Old Ball Coach annihilated Bill Curry’s over-matched Wildcats 73-7, 42-7 and 65 to 0. That is a total of 180-14 if you are scoring at home. Having viewed each of these games live, let me just say that if it is possible, these games were less competitive than the scores indicate. Urban Meyer and company also tormented the Cats, beating Rich Brooks by a combined 104 to 12 in 2008 and 2009. In short, history does not instill much confidence to Kentucky fans heading into Saturday night’s contest at Commonwealth Stadium. However, these are not your slightly older cousin’s Florida Gators.
Florida has a better football team than Kentucky. The level of talent from top to bottom on the roster is far superior. Florida has more four star recruits in their second string than Kentucky has on the entire roster. Florida is deservedly ranked in the top 20 while Mark Stoops is trying to build the young Wildcat squad from the ground up. Clearly, the programs are in different places. Still, Kentucky can win this game. Unlike many years in the past in which the only question would be what Florida would decide the final score should be, there is every reason to believe Kentucky will be competitive Saturday. Don’t believe me? Here are five reasons why Kentucky fans can feel optimistic about a possible Kentucky upset.
1. FLORIDA’S OFFENSIVE MEDIOCRITY:
As noted above, Kentucky’s defense has been a bit on the leaky side against the Gators over the years. Essentially, as anyone who has watched the series can tell you, Florida has just been far too fast all over the field for Kentucky to handle. But the days of the Fun and Gun and the Tebow Purity Express are a distant memory in Gainesville. Instead, Florida is a slow paced power running team that has inexplicably struggled to find play-makers in the Will Muschamp era. In 2013, the once mighty Gator offense is ranked dead last in the SEC in scoring offense at just under 24 points per game.
2. FLORIDA’S WALKING WOUNDED:
Florida has suffered two enormous injuries in the last week. First, returning starting quarterback Jeff Driskel broke his leg against Tennessee on Saturday, and will miss the remainder of the season. (Possibly violating the probation terms of the Vol tackler.) And although Florida fans were not thrilled with Driskel’s career to this point, do not let anyone convince you that this is not a big deal. Driskel, a veteran of 17 games and 12 starts at Florida, was a five star player and unanimous number one quarterback in his senior class by both Rivals and Scout. Driskel led the Gators to an 11 win season in 2012, to include a 7-1 mark in SEC play. His replacement, Tyler Murphy, on the other hand, is in his fourth year in the Gator program, and had appeared in exactly 3 games prior to his appearance against Tennessee, never having completed a pass. In fact, until he became the backup quarterback in the Spring following Jacoby Brissett’s transfer, the former 2 star recruit had never risen above third string during his Florida career. Though not without talent, Murphy will be making his first collegiate start on Saturday. This is clearly an enormous break for the Cats.
The injury bug bit Florida again on Wednesday as star defensive lineman Dominique Easley suffered a knee injury in practice. Though Muschamp was initially coy with the media about the severity of the injury, Florida ultimately confirmed that Easley had torn his ACL. In a defense full of stars, Easley was the best of the group, and possibly the best player on the Florida team regardless of position. Prior to the injury, he was projected to be an early first round NFL draft pick at the end of the season. As they will for Driskel, Florida will have a talented replacement, but there will unquestionably be a drop-off.
3. UNDER THE LIGHTS:
Kentucky has been hosting night games since October 5, 1929. And while I cannot attest to the environment on that October evening against Maryville College, I can say without question that Commonwealth is different at night. The crowd is always a bit more ravenous, and when there is a big-name opponent on the visitor sideline, the atmosphere is electric. Even in the forgettable 2012 season, Kentucky rode the energy of a Commonwealth Stadium night crowd to a 17-7 halftime lead against South Carolina and a third quarter lead against Georgia. Of course, the Cats ultimately fell to both the Gamecocks and the Bulldogs, but the point is that Kentucky had no business competing at all against either team in an otherwise lifeless season, but were buoyed by the home crowd. The much-improved Cats should get an even bigger bump from what will certainly be a fired up Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
4. WILL MUSCHAMP IS A CRAZY PERSON.
In the days of Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier, Florida fans could be fairly confident that they were not going to be out-coached. With Muschamp, the only thing I am confident of is that he will at some point pull a Woody Hayes on a player, official, spectator or mascot. Dime-store psychoanalysis aside, I think Muschamp is a decent coach, but a poor fit at Florida. By turning games into grind it out slug-fests, he neutralizes some of the talent disparity at his disposal against a team like Kentucky. (Think John Calipari running the four corners with the 2013-2014 Wildcat basketball squad.) Thus, I look at his role as Florida’s head coach as a positive, assuming I do not have to come into direct contact with him.
5. EXPERTS (NOT JUST ADMITTEDLY BIASED AND OVERLY OPTIMISTIC KSR BLOGGERS) EXPECT A COMPETITIVE GAME.
As you have no doubt discovered by reading this far into this post, I am not a professional writer. I am a fan. While I try to reach some degree of impartiality when writing these posts, I know it is a losing battle. As much as I try to be realistic, by the Friday night before the Alabama game, I will undoubtedly convince myself that the Cats have Saban and the Tide right where we want them. So when I say the Cats have a chance, feel free to take that with a grain or two of salt. But in this case, it is not just me. After the Easley news came out on Wednesday, Orlando Sentinel writer Mike Bianchi wrote that the Cats could realistically beat the Gators.
Even the point spread indicates that the experts give the Cats a shot. In many of the colossal beatings listed above, the Cats were four touchdown or more underdogs. As of now, the Gators are favored by 12.5 to 13 depending on the source. According to football analyst and Matt Jones’ financial planner Phil Steele, this represents a dramatic difference in regard to chances for an actual upset. Teams favored by 24 to 31 points win about 96% of games outright. On the other hand, teams favored by 10 to 14 only win about 79% of the time. That means that statistically Kentucky has a better than 1 in 5 chance to beat the Gators Saturday night. While those may not sound like great odds, it is significantly better than the 1 in 25 they faced in most previous years.
Prior to the comedy of errors that was the Florida-Tennessee game, CBS’s Gary Danielson referred to Florida as the most underrated team in the country. To paraphrase noted football expert Inigo Montoya, I do not think that word means what you think it means. While Florida’s defense is stellar, their offense is pedestrian at best, their quarterback is a career third-stringer, and they are being coached by a man who appears to be one Red Bull from smashing through the locker room wall like the Kool-Aid man and running amok in downtown Lexington. If the young Cats can feed off what will undoubtedly be a wired Commonwealth Stadium crowd and establish some early success, Kentucky could be saying goodbye to another painful chapter in their football history on Saturday night.