In just over 24 hours, Mark Stoops will coach his first game as Kentucky head coach under the lights of Commonwealth Stadium. However, this game will not be easy in any way, shape, or form as one of Kentucky’s biggest hurdles will be coming to town. The Gators of Florida are coming to Lexington and it’s no secret that they’ve flat owned the series against the Cats for the past 26 years. But fortunately for Stoops and his squad, Florida enters Lexington banged-up. Not only have the Gators had to replace their starting quarterback, Jeff Driskel, because of a season ending ankle injury, but they’ve also lost their premier defender, Dominique Easley, to a knee injury. While this would spell doom for most teams around the country, the Gators have the talent to replace these players with minimal drop-off as proven by their yearly recruiting rankings. Despite their recent struggles, Will Muschamp’s squad does many things well, and the numbers prove it.
The numbers don’t indicate that Florida is an elite offensive team, and your eyes can confirm this statement if you happened to stumble across the Gators playing Tennessee last week (and if you did, I’m sorry). Even with Driskel at quarterback, the Gators still looked sloppy on offense and couldn’t get anything going (granted it was only two drives). However, according to the team numbers, Florida doesn’t really jump off the page. Their rushing average is good for 83rd in the nation, they turn the ball over frequently, and there’s no telling if they’ll pass effectively now with Tyler Murphy at quarterback. Despite this, their offense isn’t as bad from a points per drive perspective as one would think. They currently average 1.775 points every time they touch the ball, which is only a 0.276 difference from Kentucky. The main reason they’re only slightly behind Kentucky is because of their ability to move the ball effectively on third down. Muschamp’s squad converts nearly half of their 3rd downs, which ranks them 30th in the nation. The yard per attempt numbers may not be very pretty, but ugly and effective football has become the Gator trademark over the past few years
While Florida’s offense won’t be challenging the elite offenses like Oregon and Baylor, their defense will compare favorably to anyone in the nation (or a large, rabid animal for that matter). The Gators currently rank within the top-10 in both passing yards per attempt allowed and rushing yards per attempt allowed. They’re also one of the nation’s best at forcing opponent miscues, averaging 2.67 turnovers per contest. Perhaps the most alarming thing about their defense for Neal Brown’s offense is the how they make their opponents look on third down. Currently, Florida allows opponents to convert one out of every five third down opportunities, which is best in the nation by two percentage points. I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded, but Kentucky struggles in this area mightily. Currently, the Cats are ranked 119th nationally in offensive 3rd down conversions, mainly due to the 0-for-13 performance against Louisville. It’s anyone’s guess as to if Kentucky will be able to overcome their 3rd down woes, but the numbers don’t look favorable.
At the time of this publishing, the Gators enter Saturday’s contest at Commonwealth Stadium as 12-point favorites over the Cats. Kentucky’s improved defense should be able to hold the Gator offense in check. Of course, Tyler Murphy at quarterback may just end up being the wildcard the Gators needed to improve their offense. There’s no doubt in my mind that their defense will show up, even without Dominique Easley. There’s simply too much talent on that side of the ball and the numbers support that statement. Even though the Gators are down and injured, I believe their defense will be able to carry the load as their biggest strength (3rd down defense), is Kentucky’s biggest weakness.