Florida football: 5 reasons the Gators will beat Kentucky
Florida begins its SEC slate Saturday night with a tough road test against Kentucky at Kroger Field. (7 PM, ESPN).
Can Florida begin the grind of SEC play with a road victory? Or will Kentucky best the Gators for the second season in a row?
Kentucky has outplayed Florida the past 2 seasons — dominating the Gators in The Swamp last year — and for that reason alone, should have the Gators attention.
“We have to crank up our energy this week,” Dan Mullen told the media. “It starts in practice. Kentucky is a very good football team. Mark (Stoops) has done a great job of building that program up. They’ve recruited well and they are very physical on both lines of scrimmage. It’s a good challenge for our team.”
It will be a good challenge.
It’s also one that favors Florida, once you break down personnel and matchups.
Here are 5 reasons the Gators will leave Lexington with a hard-fought victory Saturday night.
1. Florida’s elite WRs will exploit Kentucky’s young secondary
A tremendous secondary was a big reason the Wildcats finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense and 15th in S & P+ defense in 2018.
Lonnie Johnson was one of the SEC’s best cover guys at corner and Kentucky was especially strong at safety, where Mike Edwards capped his brilliant career with another All-SEC season and Darius West joined him on the All-SEC team. Edwards and Johnson were selected in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, a testament to their versatile talents and ability to play in coverage and run support. Left without too much concern about the back end, Stoops and Matt House could be very aggressive and let a fast, physical front attack downhill. That’s a good combination.
That security blanket is gone for new DC Brad White, who is starting multiple JuCo guys and lost his only projected returning starter, Davonte Robinson, to a quadriceps tear in the preseason.
With good depth across the front 7, the secondary was always going to be the biggest challenge for Kentucky once SEC play begin.
Yes, the early returns on Kentucky’s rebuilt secondary are quite good. The Cats rank in the top 20 nationally in pass efficiency defense through 2 games and have forced 3 interceptions.
But much of that damage is being done by a quick group of linebackers who are good in coverage. That’s a nice luxury, but while fast linebackers might be able to cover slot guys and tight ends for Eastern Michigan and Toldeo, they are less likely to be effective against the deep and talented group from Florida they’ll face Saturday night.
The likes of Taj Dodson, Brandin Echols and Cedrick Dort trying to stick with Florida’s senior quartet of Van Jefferson, Josh Hammond, Tyrie Cleveland and Freddie Swain all night should frighten Kentucky fans.
If there’s a weakness to the Gators’ group, it’s that they mostly are long-striding vertical threats. This is great against a young secondary if you can protect; it’s less ideal if there’s constant pressure. Expect Kentucky to adjust by bringing extra pressure to shorten the time routes can develop. That will work some, but not enough.
Florida will hit some big plays in the intermediate and vertical passing game and they will be a key difference in the football game.
2. Jabari Zuniga, Jon Greenard and Florida’s front 7 will rattle Sawyer Smith
The loss of Terry Wilson is unfortunate and for Kentucky, genuinely changes the complexion of this football game.
Smith is more mobile than people are giving him credit for, as I wrote earlier this week. He can extend plays with his feet. But he’s nowhere near as fast as Wilson and he’s not a stand-alone threat to break a big play with his legs on almost any snap. That is a big deal, especially against a Florida front that likes to contain the edge and keep quarterbacks funneled inside.
Smith has a strong arm and has winning experience — he was the MVP in Troy’s victory over a good Buffalo team in the Dollar General Bowl last season, for example. But Saturday night’s game will be his first start against a Power 5 opponent, and it comes against a defense than ranks 1st in the country in sacks (15) and tackles for loss (26) on the young season.
Florida has 2 All-SEC caliber defensive ends in Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard, which makes it harder to double team without bringing in extra blockers.
Kentucky will be easily the best OL Florida has faced, and Drake Jackson and Logan Stenberg will be huge assets to Smith in calling out protections and identifying defenses.
But Todd Grantham’s defensive scheme is terrific at creating confusion. Grantham doesn’t just rely on a 3-man front or 4-man front and attack with his elite defensive ends. He’ll show multiple looks, use exotic fronts and bring various boundary blitzes to confuse Smith.
Michigan’s Shea Patterson, a quarterback with multiple seasons of Power 5 experience, acknowledged after the Peach Bowl last season that “(Grantham’s) scheme is the most complicated, confusing one he’s faced in college football.”
That’s a big deal for a starter playing his first SEC game, and it’s the challenge Smith faces Saturday night. At some point, that challenge will give Florida an edge.
3. David Reese and the Florida linebackers will do enough to slow Kentucky’s run game
You better fit the power and the counter if you play Kentucky, and well …. Florida’s defense doesn’t need to be reminded about failing to do so and being pushed around by Kentucky last season.
The Cats ran for 303 yards, gained 8 yards a carry and the Gators missed 23 tackles.
The loss of Benny Snell Jr. to the NFL hurts, of course, but Kentucky didn’t get enough credit for what was waiting behind him in the 2-headed tandem of Asim Rose and Kavosiey Smoke. Smoke in particular is a big-time talent, a terrific blend of power and vision and burst that forces defenders to engage and tackle with good technique. Behind these 2 running backs and a strong offensive line, Kentucky is going to have some success running the football Saturday night.
That said, one big reason the Gators struggled in the Kentucky game a year ago was the absence of middle linebacker David Reese, who missed the game due to injury.
Reese will play Saturday night, and along with an improved group of run-stopping linebackers around him, especially the physical outside linebacker James Houston IV, Florida should tackle better and do enough to slow the Kentucky run game Saturday night.
4. Florida’s special teams will make a big play
Both Kentucky and the Gators have reliable punting games.
Kentucky’s Max Duffy is one of the best punters in America, and he’s averaged a staggering 50 yards a kick this season with an even more impressive 49.8 net.
Florida’s Tommy Townsend has a net of 46.3, also a strong number, and has pinned 3 of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
The differences come in the return game and at placekicker.
At kicker, Kentucky’s freshman Chance Poore has a huge leg but is 2-for-3 on the early season. How will he respond in a tight game?
Florida’s Evan McPherson has fewer questions. McPherson has only missed 2 kicks in his career, and 1 — last year against Kentucky — was clearly good but called no-good.
Finally, the game features 2 of the best punt return weapons in the sport in Lynn Bowden and Freddie Swain. Bowden took 2 punts to the house a season ago; Swain led the SEC in punt return average, including a 25-yard return against Kentucky.
The bet here is that Florida’s coverage teams contain Bowden, while a Kentucky special teams unit relying on several new faces loses Swain at least once. In a game where field position will matter, that — along with McPherson’s range and accuracy — could be the difference.
5. Feleipe Franks’ experience wins the day
For all the measurable improvements made by Feleipe Franks under Dan Mullen, the narratives haven’t changed much. People don’t trust his ability to win football games if asked and they question his maturity. Whether it is how he celebrates a touchdown or how he revels in a rivalry win, Franks has become a lightning rod for criticism.
But the truth is that last season, Franks was good enough to win every true road game on Florida’s schedule, including wins in electric environments in Knoxville and Starkville. Yes, Franks mostly “managed” those games — he didn’t have to “win” them with his arm. Whether he can do that if Florida’s run game struggles remains a fair question.
But I think he can play well enough to do that.
Franks didn’t play well as a freshman at Kroger Field, and eventually was benched in favor of Luke Del Rio, who broke Kentucky hearts with a furious comeback.
He’ll play better Saturday night, exploiting a young Kentucky secondary enough times to keep the Gators offense moving up and down the field and keeping the pressure on Sawyer Smith and Kentucky to sustain drives.
Eventually, Smith won’t be able to answer the bell, and Florida will leave Lexington with a win.