5 reasons Florida is on upset alert Saturday at Kentucky
It’s a special weekend in the SEC with two games that will command national attention in No. 8 Arkansas’ visit to No. 2 Georgia and No. 12 Ole Miss’ visit to No. 1 Alabama. These are the Saturdays you live for down south and what makes the regular season in this sport so special.
Of course, in the SEC, there’s always something on the menu for dessert after the marquee games are done and this week, the best of the evening games is No. 10 Florida’s visit to unbeaten Kentucky. The Wildcats haven’t beaten Florida in Lexington since Ronald Reagan was President, but it’s been “morning again in Lexington” for most of the Mark Stoops era, and a home victory over the Gators is one of the last things for Stoops to do to cement a lasting legacy in the Bluegrass State.
Florida fans are feeling confident after watching the improvement of Emory Jones the past 2 weeks, and that’s understandable. Jones went toe to toe with No. 1 Alabama and joined what previously had been a fraternity of one (Tim Tebow) at Florida against Tennessee by throwing for 200 yards and rushing for 100 more last weekend. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have scuttled about over the past 2 weeks after opening the season with a dominant win over Louisiana-Monroe and a “less close than the score” win over Missouri. Kentucky’s inability to win with style is probably the only reason Saturday night’s contest at Kroger Field doesn’t feature two ranked teams.
They’re going to hype up Kentucky all week. Environment will be a challenge for sure, I get that. But for the next week they’re about to tell the world a team that beat South Carolina and UT Chattanooga by a combined 11 points is our equal with a straight face 😒
— \/ari (@157Gale) September 26, 2021
No matter how confident Florida’s fan base is, the players better be focused. Kentucky is talented, physical and the offseason chatter about the Wildcats being vastly improved at the skill positions isn’t just talk. The Wildcats are improved at every skill spot and have a legitimate gamechanger in Wan’Dale Robinson, the former Mr. Kentucky football recruit who transferred back home after 2 seasons at Nebraska. These improvements, plus recent history, suggest Florida will get all they can handle Saturday night.
Here are 5 reasons the Gators are on “upset alert” Saturday night.
Kentucky’s offensive line can handle Florida’s front
When Stoops took the Kentucky job nearly a decade ago, he emphasized that Goal No. 1 and Goal No. 2 would be to “make the program tough to play against by being one of the most physical teams in the country on both lines of scrimmage.” Nine seasons into his tenure, that mission has been successful. Kentucky doesn’t win every game, but you sure do remember you played them on Sunday morning.
Kentucky has one of the better offensive lines in the country, led by a pair of All-American candidates in tackle Darian Kinnard and center Luke Fortner.
Kinnard is 6-5 and 335 and has otherworldly reach which he uses to compensate for a small athleticism and quickness deficit against faster ends. A 4-year starter and first-team All-SEC selection in 2020, he likely would have been drafted before his departed teammate Landon Young was last season, but he elected to return and fine-tune his craft for his senior year. He will likely be selected on Day 2 of the NFL Draft next year and will be the second-best tackle Florida’s ends have played this season.
Fortner, meanwhile, grades out 5th nationally among centers this season, per Pro Football Focus, and No. 1 in the SEC. A 3-year starter, Fortner has seen it all in the league and is unlikely to be fooled by Florida’s different looks defensively. He will call checks and help new QB Will Levis identify the wrinkles in Todd Grantham’s blitzing scheme.
If you can block Florida up front, you can make big plays against Florida on the back end — and Kentucky is well-equipped to do that.
Kentucky’s one-two punch at running back can take advantage
Kentucky features the SEC’s leading rusher in Chris Rodriguez, but there’s an argument to be made that his backup, Kavosiey Smoke, is more versatile. Smoke has 142 yards rushing and a touchdown this season, but he’s also a viable option in the passing game, with 8 career catches on 10 targets. New offensive coordinator Liam Coen hasn’t used the running backs much in the passing game yet in 2021, but this was a common thread with the Los Angeles Rams offenses he helped coach in the NFL and Kentucky may look to use Smoke in this way Saturday night.
Coen has also found ways to use Smoke and Rodriguez together in split backfields, which coupled with eye candy from motion and a focus on Robinson on the perimeter gives a defense plenty to think about pre-snap. Kentucky will test Florida’s commitment to better defensive communication Saturday night better than anyone but Alabama.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez is a bruising runner with deceptively good speed on the second level. He’s also terribly difficult to tackle, as evidenced by the fact he’s leading the SEC in yards after contact and broken tackles. He gained almost half his yardage against a solid South Carolina front last week after contact, breaking several tackles in the process.
In the 4Q, Chris Rodriguez put up a 4.9 YAC average, 44.4% Broken Tackle Rate, 77.8% Success Rate, 33.3% Explosive Run Rate with 0 negative tries #closer
now just stop those damn fumbles https://t.co/6riKFia0ke
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) September 26, 2021
That’s going to present a stiff challenge for a Florida defense that hasn’t tackled well all season.
Will Levis can hit explosive passes down the field
Until last week, Levis led the SEC in “explosive passing plays” (20 yards or more) on the season with 14. South Carolina did a good job of keeping things in front of them and Levis didn’t hit a single pass of 20 yards or more in Columbia. He’s completed 8 passes that covered at least 30 yards — tied for 2nd in the SEC — 3 have gone for at least 50 yards.
The Gators’ secondary has given up at least 1 deep pass in 3 of their 4 games this season, and Kentucky has a host of playmakers to stress Florida defensively, as 10 Wildcats have scored this season.
Kavosiey Smoke the 10th different Wildcat to score a TD this season:
— TheCatsPause247 (@TheCatsPause247) September 25, 2021
Further, if Florida can’t get pressure with their front four, Levis does a terrific job of finding these playmakers from a clean pocket.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 18, 2021
Levis — and the rest of this Kentucky team — have had issues with ball security this season. But Florida hasn’t been a force in producing takeaways and if the Gators can’t, Kentucky is plenty good enough to move the ball up and down the field and hit big plays when they need them.
Kentucky’s run defense is terrific, making it “strength-on-strength” for the Wildcats
Kentucky ranks 21st nationally in rushing defense. The Cats are limiting opponents to just 87 yards per game and have done that against running games that feature Tyler Badie and Kevin Harris, 2 of the more dynamic backs in the SEC. Kentucky ranks 3rd nationally in yards allowed per attempt (2.1) and those numbers aren’t grossly inflated by the schedule, either — as the Cats have allowed just 162 yards on 50 attempts (3.2 ypc) in SEC play.
Florida chewed up Alabama and Tennessee in the run game — but those games were in the friendly confines of The Swamp. How will a banged-up Gators offensive line handle a Wildcats front featuring multiple blue-chip talents like Josh Paschal, Marquan McCall and Jordan Wright? It’s a tough matchup for Florida.
Florida has needed magic to escape Kroger Field the past 2 visits: when does its luck run out?
Stoops was tantalizingly close to the white buffalo of a home win over Florida the past 2 times Florida’s visited. In both games, Florida needed the backup quarterback to escape.
In 2017, Jim McElwain’s Gators escaped only because Kentucky couldn’t line up properly on a couple of key plays. Feleipe Franks was benched in favor of Luke Del Rio, who rallied the Gators from a 13-point deficit to a stunning victory.
In 2019, Franks, by then an established starter under Mullen, was lost for the season late in the third quarter. In came Kyle Trask, who led an epic fourth-quarter comeback and in the process, went full Lou Gehrig to Feleipe’s Wally Pipp, winning the quarterback position at Florida for good.
A positive update on Anthony Richardson’s health this weekend means the Gators should have options if they need to resort to a backup quarterback to save the day a third time. Then again — at some point, doesn’t Florida’s book of magic tricks run out?
The Gators are playing well and can see a path to a 6-1 record and a Cocktail Party for the SEC East in front of them.
Looking purely at the matchup, however — and not the letters on the helmets — Saturday night’s game in Lexington may prove to be their toughest test.