For decades, the question was simply could Kentucky beat Florida. But after beating the Gators in The Swamp in 2018 and in Lexington last season, Kentucky has proven itself on that front. In 2022, the question is probably going to be whether the Wildcats can beat the Gators without running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. Here’s how the situation got here.

Rodriguez had a very interesting offseason, and not in a good way. A DUI conviction didn’t exactly get things off to a brilliant start, but then there’s some other matter hanging over his head. Rumors have swirled as to the involvement of other players, the nature of the punishment to be meted out to Rodriguez and exactly what it is the senior running back did to get into Mark Stoops’, or Kentucky’s, or the NCAA’s doghouse. One thing that is clear is that Rodriguez was missing from the Wildcats’ Week 1 depth chart and from the field in Kentucky’s 37-13 win over Miami of Ohio.

And Rodriguez wasn’t the only thing missing– a potent running game was also absent. Without the back who rushed for 1,379 yards a year ago, Kentucky’s ground attack was missing in action. The Wildcats ended up with 50 rushing yards on 26 carries, a less than robust 1.9 yards per carry. Sure, 4 Will Levis sacks contributed to those totals — but UK didn’t rip off a run longer than 9 yards all day. This against a fair, but not exactly imposing Miami of Ohio defense that allowed 3.9 yards per carry last season.

Kentucky’s fortunes — and ability to hang with the Gators — have changed largely in recent years on the basis of big rushing games. In 2018, Rodriguez’s doppleganger Benny Snell managed 175 rushing yards in The Swamp in UK’s 1st win there in nearly 4 decades. Last season, Rodriguez managed 99 yards and 1 touchdown in Kentucky’s 20-13 victory. So one can see why Rodriguez’s possible return is important to Kentucky.

Kentucky still has made no official announcement concerning Rodriguez’s status, and he’s absent from the Week 2 depth chart. Kentucky lists senior Kavosiey Smoke as the starting running back on Saturday. If C-Rod indeed is out of the lineup again, Kentucky will need a huge game from Levis. Levis passed for just 87 yards last year against Florida in his lowest mark for the season.

There’s certainly reason to suspect that Rodriguez will be absent. Preseason best guesses from people like Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones placed the length of his suspension at 3 or 4 games. There’s also reason to suspect that the Kentucky ground game won’t be the same without him. Smoke is a talented and experienced player, but he’s at his best as a speedster sweeping the corners of the defense, not as a battering ram churning out yardage. FCS transfer Ramon Jefferson looked good, but he also appeared to injure his leg on his 2nd (and final) carry of the game. Junior JuTahn McClain and frosh La’Vell Wright have both shown flashes of talent. But nobody has shown the ability to be the man in the 4th quarter in a hard-fought SEC battle. Well, nobody but Rodriguez. But with him missing, Kentucky’s offense might have to get creative in finding a way to best the Gators.

One hidden key could be the running game of Levis. A year ago, he rushed for 376 yards and 9 touchdowns. That included 6 carries for 21 yards in the win over Florida. But Stoops is presumably reluctant to use his only experienced passer (and team offensive leader) as a battering ram.

Will Rodriguez play? Can Kentucky scheme up a running game in his absence? And if not, can Levis put the team on his back in The Swamp against the Gators? For all the questions, one thing is certain: The Big Blue Nation would feel much more confident about Saturday night with Rodriguez in the backfield instead of on the sidelines.