Kentucky is coming off their worst margin of defeat in the Mark Stoops era and things aren’t set to get any easier. After hitting the road to play the eventual SEC West champions, now the Wildcats are on the road again to play the impending SEC East champions. It was rough sledding last week and it looks like UK will again be without Chris Rodriguez Jr. while Florida is getting superstar tight end Kyle Pitts back in the lineup. Gulp.
One thing is for certain this week and that is that Dan Mullen is gunning for the Heisman Trophy for quarterback Kyle Trask and the Gators will be hunting for 70 points after seeing Alabama ring up 63 on this Kentucky defense. If UK’s offense doesn’t find a way to consistently move the chains and end good drives with touchdowns this contest could get ugly.
Nuts and Bolts
After whiffing on both Chip Kelly and Scott Frost in the coaching search, athletic director Scott Stricklin settled on Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen who was once the Florida offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer. It felt like a quality hire, but some were skeptical of Mullen after he went just 33-39 in the SEC in nine seasons with just one winning record. Turns out, Mississippi State is just a really hard job.
The Gators are 27-6 under Mullen and have improved each season. They were finally able to get the Georgia monkey off of their back this season and now they are firmly in the hunt for their first SEC title since 2008. They are getting elite play from their quarterback and it is lifting their entire team. Even with an iffy defense, Florida is proof that the college game is changing. If you’re passing game is elite, you can compete for conference and national titles.
This will be the 71st meeting in program history and Florida owns a commanding 52-18 series lead. Of course, we all know about that 31-game winning streak that Kentucky was finally able to end in 2018. Mullen and Mark Stoops are set to go head-to-head for the eighth season in a row with Mullen owning a 5-2 mark. However, this will be the best Mullen team that UK has faced since Dak Prescott and the No. 1 team came to Lexington back in 2014.
Out in the desert, Florida is a 24.5 point favorite with a total 61.5. That’s a projected final score around 43-19. This is the largest spread in the series in over a decade. The Gators are 4-3 ATS on the season while Kentucky is 3-5 and just 1-3 away from Lexington. The is 5-2 in Florida contests while the under is 5-3 in Kentucky games. A beautiful forecast in the mid-70s will prevent any type of football weather occurring at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Gators are putting up 44.7 points per game and have scored at least 38 points in every game this season. Despite having a very pedestrian ground attack, Florida is lethal with the passing game and ranks third in the SEC with a 53.20% pass play rate. In some ways, this is the setup of an old school Air Raid offense and it is slicing up SEC defenses.
It all starts and ends with redshirt senior Kyle Trask (No. 11) and the former low three-star recruit who couldn’t even start over Miami quarterback D’Eriq King in high school. It’s been a long wait for the 6-5 pocket passer, but it’s all paying off in the best Florida season we’ve seen from an individual since Tim Tebow.
Trask leads the nation in touchdown passes and is putting up video game numbers. He is posting 10.4 yards per attempt, is completing 70.7% of his throws and the advanced stats back him up as well. The pocket passer has a 59.76% passing success rate, 26.02% explosive play rate and only a 2.77% sack rate. He has been a maestro that is pressing all of the right buttons for Mullen’s offense. However, he has thrown the ball into traffic quite a lot with 13.01% of his passes either being a PBU or interception. Kentucky must find a way to get some interceptions to alter the game.
Trask’s top target through seven games has been slot wideout Kadarius Toney (N0. 1). The former high-three star recruit from Alabama has always had a load of potential and he is finally reaching it in his senior season. Toney has 42 receptions with a 82.35% catch rate and an explosive play rate of 29.41%. He’s had a handful of receptions that have resulted in negative plays, but he’s consistently provided splash plays and has at least four grabs in every outing. He can be a difficult matchup, but none are more difficult than Florida’s flex tight end.
Kyle Pitts (No. 84) is the best tight end in college football and the 6-6, 246-pounder from Philadelphia could be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Mullen will line Pitts up all over the field and he’s a playmaker in every regard. The raw stat line of 24 receptions, 414 yards and eight touchdowns is really solid, but the advanced stat line is even more impressive. Pitts has a 64.86% success rate and 35.14% explosive play rate. He’s one of the most efficient and explosive players in college football. He has missed the last two games and will making his return to the lineup on Saturday afternoon. He’s a defensive nightmare.
On the outside, Trevon Grimes (No. 8) has been the offense’s big play guy since Pitts left the lineup and the former Ohio State transfer has stepped up. Grimes has 22 receptions, is averaging 15.77 yards per catch and has scored six touchdowns. He has a success rate of 57.58% and an explosive play rate of 30.30%. He’s another big time weapon at Trask’s disposal. Meanwhile, former blue-chippers Jacob Copeland (No. 15) and Penn State transfer Justin Shorter (No. 89) have combined for 28 receptions and four touchdowns as other weapons on the outside. Yeah, they are loaded.
In the backfield, the Gators use three backs but the traditional run game is not this offenses’s strength. Despite leaning run heavy at Mississippi State, Mullen has turned pass heavy in Gainesville as the Gators are still looking for their first 1,000 yard rusher under his watch. Dameon Pierce (No. 27) leads the team 345 rushing yards, but each of the three average under five yards per carry. This unit has produced just 12 rushes of 10-plus yards in 158 attempts as they’ve labored to get it going on the ground. They run the ball to keep the pass rush at bay, but the backs do factor into the passing game.
Malik Davis (No. 20) has 18 grabs for 297 yards to lead the running backs as this group has produced a 87.18% catch rate and 74.36% success rate. Trask is not just checking the ball down and the running backs factor heavily into many pass concepts. This group sliced up Georgia with wheel routes and will be a major factor for UK to align with in pass coverage.
In the trenches, the Gators are big and they are experienced. Florida starts four redshirt seniors on the offensive line and each starter is at least 6-foot-5. This starting unit averages 323 pounds and they’ve been really, really good in pass protection. Creating run lanes and big gains has been an issue, but it is clear that this offense is really benefitting from all of this experience up front. Overall, this offense is littered with juniors and seniors who are making a big difference on the field.
For as good as Florida’s offense is, they have not been as explosive as your would think. The Gators have just two touchdowns of 40-plus yards, but they have been dynamic at finishing drives. Their red zone touchdown rate of ranks in the top-15 nationally and their 5.62 points per scoring opportunity is among the best in college football.
Todd Grantham has been a college football coordinator for a decade straight and the former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator has been with Dan Mullen since 2017. Grantham is making $1.8 million per season, but his defense in 2020 does have some issues.
The Gators have allowed seven touchdowns of 40-plus yards and they rank near the bottom of the league in yards per play allowed. This defense has forced just 10 turnovers in seven games after having at least 23 in the first two years under Grantham. They are getting tackles for loss, but the takeaways have not been there for a defense that likes to take plenty of chances.
To find the strength on this side of the ball you have to look at the line of scrimmage and Georgia transfer Brenton Cox Jr. (No.1) is making a big impact. The former top-25 recruit is one of the best pass rushers in the SEC and has lived up to the hype in his first season in Gainesville. Playing next to him at the jumbo defensive end spot is Zachary Carter (No. 17) and he can also get after the passer. The duo have combined for 5.5 sacks and 22 QB hurries. Their production has been very good and they lead a strong pass rush that ranks second in the SEC and 37th nationally with a sack rate of 7.75%.
Tedarrell Slaton (No. 56) is one of the best nose players in the SEC and he can play the run at a high level in addition to being able to rush the passer. At the second level, Mohamoud Diabate (No. 11) has been very active while Ventrell Miller (No. 51) has played very good football at Mike most of the season. However, it’s the secondary where some of the issues are. However, it is worth nothing that teams have been able to establish the run. Opposing running backs are putting up a 49.12% rushing success rate and that is an area you can attack them.
The Gators have only gotten three interceptions from the secondary and outside of star corner Kaiir Elam (No. 5) who has nine pass break-ups and two interceptions, the playmaking has just not been there. That has been disappointing when you consider this group starts a bunch of upperclassmen. To clear up some of their big play defense and to create more takeaways, Florida needs its secondary to start making more plays.
Florida has scored just one defensive touchdown this season and that occurred well when the game was decided against Arkansas. When backed up, the Gators have not been great but they haven’t been bad at creating stops. This defense is middle of the pack in the SEC when it comes to red zone touchdown rate and is allowing 4.47 points per scoring opportunity. You can get points on this when scoring chances are created.
This defense has been able to feast on any offense that struggles to pass it as they have sack/hurry rate of 20.95% and can flat get after the passer. They have held offenses to a 42.02% passing success rate, but when they give up long plays they are usually in big chunks. On the ground you can have more success as the Gators were drilled in the first three games against Ole Miss, South Carolina and Texas A&M. They’ve tightened the screws lately, but only Vandy attempted more than 30 running back runs in a single game. Kentucky should challenge them in this aspect of the game.
Special Teams Breakdown
Evan McPherson has been a superb kicker his entire career and the junior is 43 of 48 all-time on field goal attempts. He is 9 of 10 this season and has missed just one extra point his entire career. He might be the best placekicker in the SEC. The Gators are breaking in a new punter this season and he hasn’t been used much. Jacob Finn only has 13 punts on the season and is averaging just over 44 yards per attempt.
In the return game, Florida goes with Kadarius Toney as they look to put the ball in their best playmaker’s hands as much as possible. He’s been pretty pedestrian in both punt and kickoff returns, but could bust one loose at any moment. Similar to Alabama, Florida will keep the ball out of the endzone on kickoffs in an attempt to flip field position with their coverage team. UK’s kickoff return team must again be ready to make some plays in the return game.
Keys to Victory
- The best defense to a really good offense is always ball control. Florida cannot put up points if Kyle Trask is on the sideline and that should be Kentucky’s top goal for Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats will need a handful of long, slow drives to milk the clock through all four quarters. If Kentucky can move the chains enough to have a couple of these where they finish drives with touchdowns it will give the road team a shot.
- Similar to last week, it is going to be really hard to force punts against this offense. Kyle Trask is in total control and he has a plethora of weapons to distribute the football to. He is playing at a high level and the whole team is feeding off its star quarterback. Therefore, for Kentucky, it’s all about takeaways and getting scoring opportunity stops. The Wildcats have forced just one takeaway in the last two games while allowing 12 touchdowns in 13 scoring opportunities. If this doesn’t improve they will get housed. If it does get better they will have a shot in the second half.
- Going on long drives is fine and all, but to keep up with an offense that can score as easily as Florida’s you have to be able to create explosive plays. The Gators have given up seven touchdowns of 40-plus yards this season and it is hard envisioning an upset if one of the these doesn’t happen.
- At times we can put too much stock into what happens on third down because more often the not the results of the first two downs dictate what happens on third down. However, we’ve seen this down and sometimes fourth down on defense really hurt Kentucky. Against Arkansas, the Gators were gashed on defense but they were able to get stops on third down to prevent the Hogs from possessing the football for a good chunk of snaps. Kentucky has to find a way to win this down. Most importantly, the offense must be really good on third down to keep that Florida offense on the sideline.
- We should expect some limited possessions in the game. The Gators don’t push the tempo at all and are very comfortable playing in a game that could feature only eight or so trips for both offenses. If Kentucky can get off to a good start and score early, it could allow them to hang around late if big plays are limited on the Florida side. A fast start will certainly give you a puncher’s chance.