Week three is here and that means the game that has been sold out since August has finally arrived. A year after snapping The Streak, the Florida Gators roll into Lexington looking for some revenge and a 1-0 start in conference play. Buckle up, it’s time for some SEC football.
Nuts and Bolts
Since Steve Spurrier took over at his alma mater in 1990, the Gators have won eight SEC championships, three national championships, and two Heisman Trophy trophies. Before that, Florida never won an SEC title and had one Heisman Trophy. That was the man who would go on to be known as The Head Ball Coach.
Spurrier would win 122 games in 12 seasons with one national championship and seven SEC championship game appearances. Florida finished in the top-15 of the AP Poll each season and won at least 10 games nine times. He turned this program into a college football powerhouse.
A few years later, Urban Meyer won a national title in his second year in Gainesville and would win another one two years later. He called it quits after 2010, but in just six seasons, he won 65 games and two SEC titles.
Following that was a huge lull.
For seven seasons, the program was run by former Nick Saban assistants with some very average results. The Gators had three top-25 seasons, but the offenses were ugly. Per S&P+, the Gators never had an offense in the top-50 and the fans were sick of it. After Jim McElwain quit in the middle of the 2017 season, Florida turned to a familiar face.
Dan Mullen was Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida for four seasons and during that time, two of his offenses finished in the top-6 per S&P+. After missing out on Chip Kelly and Scott Frost, Mullen was the obvious candidate after winning 69 games in nine seasons at Mississippi State.
Under Mullen’s watch, Florida finished 15th in S&P+’s offensive rankings last year and that was their highest mark since Tim Tebow’s senior season. He has excited many in the Sunshine State and some were making some bold predictions this offseason.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) January 10, 2019
This will be the 70th meeting between the two programs with Florida owning a substantial 51-18 series lead. However, for the first time since 1987, UK has the most recent win in the series. Since Mark Stoops arrived, the average final score in this game has been Florida 27.2, Kentucky 17.8. Four of the last five meetings have come down to the last possession with the trailing team having the chance to win the game with clocking winding down.
Out in the desert, Florida is an 8-point favorite with a total of 50.5. That’s a projected final scored of 29-21. Since 2016, Mark Stoops is 7-0 against the spread when playing top-25 competition with four upset wins. When ranked and facing an unranked SEC foe, Dan Mullen is 6-8 against the spread with five upset losses.
Florida is putting up 34.5 points per game, 6.57 yards per play, and rank 93rd in total plays through two weeks. Redshirt junior Feleipe Franks is giving the Gators some solid quarterback play.
The former top-150 prospect is completing 77.8 percent of his passes and is putting up 9.7 yards per attempt. He has passed for four touchdowns and has exactly 27 pass attempts in the first two games. He can still throw the hell out of the deep ball.
Franks now has 23 career starts under his belt and he’s playing quarterback for one of the most respected play-callers in college football. He’s grown a lot the last two seasons, but he still has flaws. The 6-foot-6, 238-pound passer is a fiery player who, at times, let’s the emotions get the best of him.
? Reviewing South Carolina @ Florida from this season
Bizarre moment(s) as UF QB Felipe Franks “shushed” his home crowd.
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) March 9, 2019
That showed up big time in a tense game against Miami and could play into Kentucky’s favor in front of a raucous Kroger Field crowd. The big righty has a lot of solid players to distribute the football to and after years of bad wide receiver play, the Gators have one of the sport’s best wideout corps in 2019. It’s a group that is loaded with blue-chip talent.
Starters Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond, and Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson were each four-star recruits and top-170 prospects coming out of high school. Off the bench, they have Ohio State transfer and former top-50 recruit Trevon Grimes. At slot, Freddie Swain was a top-130 recruit and he backs up Hammond. The least heralded of the group was former high three-star Kadarius Toney who will not play on Saturday.
Josh Hammond has been the most reliable receiver the last two seasons and he is dangerous out of the slot. The South Florida native had an 82.4 percent catch rate last season and is putting up a solid 14.4 yards per catch this season. On the outside, Van Jefferson is Franks’ top target even though he is fairly inefficient. The Tennessee native had a catch rate of just 48.6 percent last season, but is averaging 21.6 yards per catch this year.
Tyrie Cleveland and Trevon Grimes were the highest rated recruits, but neither is near the top option in the passing game. A lot of weapons are there for Feleipe Franks to take advantage of.
Off of last year’s offensive line that blazed the way for the 20th best rush offense in S&P+ were four starters and 139 career starts. Position coach John Hevesy had his work cut out for him entering this fall. At center, former low three-star recruit Nick Buchanan started all 13 games last season while former high three-star Brett Heggie had seven starts during the Jim McElwain regime. The Gators are totally retooling on the line.
Through two games, Florida has only given up two sacks but has been pretty awful in the run game. The Gators are putting up 4.26 yards per carry, but the production from their primary three running backs has been suboptimal.
Lamical Perine, Dameon Pierce, and Malik Davis are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry on 34 attempts and have scored just two touchdowns as a group. That’s really frightening when you consider that Perine was a preseason All-SEC selection. Kentucky could have an advantage in the trenches.
After being pursued by the Cincinnati Bengals, Todd Grantham decided to return to Gainesville and is now making $1.8 million to call Florida’s defense. That salary bump has paid off in the first two games.
In the win over Miami, the Gators recorded 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to lead the team to victory. In the win over UT-Martin, the Gators picked up another 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. This is an aggressive 3-4 scheme that loves to take chances. So far, two edge players are leading the way.
Jabari Zuniga has been in the defensive line rotation since his redshirt freshman season and he has been one of the SEC’s best defensive ends in the first two weeks. The former high three-star recruit is becoming a fast riser up NFL Draft boards after recording 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in the first two games. He plays the traditional defensive end spot in the three-down front and the 6-foot-4, 246-pound lineman will line up across from UK guards and tackles. He has some burst.
In Florida’s Buck position (hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end), Louisville grad transfer Jonathan Greenard steps in for Jachai Polite and he’s off to a very hot start. Greenard was knocked out for the season last year in UofL’s season opening loss to Alabama, but before that he recorded 15.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 2017. He’s good.
UK’s tackles will have their hands full in pass protection.
The Gators had a fierce pass-rusher off the edge last night in Jonathan Greenard. pic.twitter.com/sf3RHFOpm8
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 26, 2019
At linebacker, Jeremiah Moon is used as a situational pass rusher and the redshirt junior brings some speed rush to the table. In just two games, the Alabama native has 3.5 tackles for loss. At Mike, David Reese II broke into the starting lineup during his true freshman season and the senior has not looked back despite some bad injury luck. At Will, converted safety Amari Burney gets the start but Ventrell Miller has made the bigger impact. Florida has depth and will play a handful of linebackers.
In the secondary, Todd Grantham will deploy five defensive backs most of the time but on Saturday the Gators will be without a key piece. CJ Henderson might be the top corner in the country and he is unlikely to play due to an ankle sprain. He’s a future first-rounder. In his place will be a true freshman platoon.
Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough were both high three-star prospects in the class of 2019 and one of them will be receiving their first start on Saturday. On the other side, redshirt sophomore Marco Wilson has played a lot of football while top-5o prospect Kaiir Elam is another true freshman that will be thrown into the rotation. None of the corners are taller than 6-foot-1. At the Star (nickel) position, former UK target Trey Dean III starts after playing as a true freshman last season.
At safety, Florida has a lot of experience with four upperclassmen in the rotation we were all three-star prospects. Depth is an issue for the secondary at corner, but not so much at safety.
Special Teams Breakdown
Entering this weekend, the Gators ranked 2oth in special teams per S&P+ and a lot of that has to do with punter Tommy Townsend. The senior is averaging 46 yards per punt and was one of the most efficient punters in college football last season. Evan McPherson returns for his sophomore season and is 19-of-21 on field goals in his career. He currently has a 75 percent touchback rate and figures to be one of the best kickers in the SEC this season.
The biggest weakness of this group can be found in the return department. Freddie Swain has not been much of a threat as a punt returner. UK will have a significant advantage in the hidden yardage battle in this regard.
Keys to Victory
For the second season in a row, UK will be looking to get off to a 1-0 start in SEC play and to do that they must get by the Florida just like last year. A few plays could decide the winner.
- Kentucky tackles Darian Kinnard and Landon Young are both really good players. However, if UK finds themselves constantly being in obvious passing downs they are going to struggle with Florida’s edge rush.UK must be efficient on early downs to stay ahead of the sticks.
- Florida has had their issues running the football through eight quarters. After struggling against Miami’s really good run defense, it took the Gators awhile to get things rolling against UT-Martin. Kentucky allowed just 67 non-sack rushing yards last week against EMU. Against a very talented receiving corps, UK’s front must do its part in stopping the run.
- In a game against two teams this evenly matched, it could come down to what you do when scoring opportunities arrive. Florida has only given up four red zone possessions and only two of those ended up with touchdowns. Kentucky has allowed five with four resulting in scores. Meanwhile, UK has scored on 7-of-8 red zone trips while Florida has scored on 8-of-9. Whoever is more efficient in the red zone will likely win the football game.
After a 10-win debut, it should have been smooth sailing for Dan Mullen entering year two in Gainesville. It has been anything but that.
Florida freshman defensive back Chris Steele has entered the NCAA transfer portal, per source.
Was a top-50 recruit and the top-ranked member of Florida's 2019 recruiting class.
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) May 9, 2019
The attorney for John Huggins explains Huggins' side of the accusation that the ex-#Gators DB tried to strangle a tutor and why Huggins is no longer with Florida's football team. https://t.co/trMl51WQIj
— Matt Baker (@MBakerTBTimes) August 13, 2019
Florida quarterback Jalon Jones was reportedly accused of sexual battery in April https://t.co/mVi8H5TwVW
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 2, 2019
Since the end of last season, Florida has had a ton of players lost to attrition. Two reserve linebackers grad transferred out of the program. A top-10 recruiting class was gutted by multiple departures both due to transfer and dismissal. Two expected secondary contributors were lost for the season. One for an injury and the other for a dismissal.
Now CJ Henderson is out and corner is getting worn very thin. There’s definitely issues going on in that football complex and if things get rocky it will be interesting to see if Mullen is able to keep the boat afloat.