With Florida preparing for its SEC opener Saturday, coach Jim McElwain has referenced multiple times how close Kentucky played the Gators the last two seasons.
Florida narrowly escaped with a 36-30 overtime win two years ago in the teams’ last meeting in The Swamp, and the Gators squeaked out a 14-9 victory in Lexington, Ky., last fall.
McElwain has brought up those points as a counter to all the talk about Florida’s 29-game winning streak against Kentucky, while also emphasizing that these Gators and these Wildcats are different teams even from the ones that clashed last year.
To that point, neither side looked all that impressive in its respective season opener last weekend.
Florida, at least, came away with a 24-7 win against Massachusetts while putting the game away in the fourth quarter. Kentucky was not so fortunate. The Wildcats had a 35-10 lead in the second quarter against Southern Mississippi before giving up 34 unanswered points to lose 44-35.
Joe Mussatto, who covers Kentucky for SEC Country, offered his perspective on the Wildcats as they look to shake off that collapse and challenge the Gators in Gainesville, Fla., this weekend:
1. How do you think the second-half collapse last weekend affects Kentucky moving toward the game this Saturday?
Mussatto: “UK coaches and players have said a number of times this week that they’ve moved on from the Southern Miss game. Of course they have to say that, but I largely believe them. I’m sure it still hurts when they look back on it, but I think it’s one of those deals where we as the people covering the team are dwelling on it much more than the team itself. There’s no time for UK to focus on that game with the difficult test it’s going to face Saturday in The Swamp.”
2. How do the coaches and players explain the breakdowns that occurred after halftime? Do you feel it was fluky or more indicative of some significant concerns?
Mussatto: “There’s no doubt it’s a significant concern. It’s now two games in a row where UK was up big at halftime before it let a lead slip away. It happened in the season finale against Louisville where the Wildcats got out to a 24-7 halftime lead and lost, and then Saturday when they were up 35-10 just before halftime only to get shut out in the second half. Coach Mark Stoops apologized for the Southern Miss loss and quarterback Drew Barker said he thought his team was “over” the second half collapses. Stoops has stressed getting over a “losing mentality.” That’s a good term for it.
3. How has Drew Barker developed from last year and how will he respond to playing in The Swamp against one of the SEC’s better defenses?
Mussatto: “That’s the key question for Kentucky. Barker started the final two games last season against Charlotte and Louisville, but both were at home. The Swamp is a tough place for anyone to play, much less a guy making his first career road start and first start against an SEC defense. There are plenty of quarterback questions in this conference but Kentucky couldn’t be more confident in Barker. He played his best half of football last Saturday for the first two quarters, but turned the ball over three times in the second half. Not all of it was on Barker, but he needs to be consistent against Florida for Kentucky to have a chance.”
4. Kentucky had a number of long gains last week. Do you expect the Wildcats to come out aggressive and test Florida’s standout cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson?
Mussatto: “I think you’re going to see a different plan on offense from Kentucky. I think they’re going to try to ease Barker into things a little bit before testing Tabor and Wilson. The ground game couldn’t get going against Southern Miss, and those big plays that you mentioned resulted in quick scoring drives. That combination meant a lot of time on the field for UK’s defense. The Wildcats aren’t deep on that side of the ball, and I think slowing down the game and trying to control possession will be a must for UK.”
5. How is the 29-game losing streak to Florida viewed by Kentucky fans and players? And while the season opener was deflating, is there any confidence to be drawn from how close the Wildcats played the Gators the last two seasons?
Mussatto: “Knowing they’ve played Florida close two years in a row does give Kentucky at least a bit of confidence Saturday. The coaches and players have mentioned that much more than the streak. The older players talk about the series since they’ve been a part of it, but no one is going back 29 years. That being said, were Kentucky to win I think the first thing everyone on the team would talk about is breaking the streak. As far as fans, there’s no doubt they’re aware of it. Stoops is in his fourth year and the fanbase is showing signs of thinning. Nothing would bring them back like beating Florida.”