GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida coach Jim McElwain noted this week, the Gators open SEC play Saturday against a Kentucky team “that is hurting a little bit.”
The Wildcats gave up 34 unanswered points in their season opener to turn a big second-quarter lead into a 44-35 loss to Southern Mississippi. That makes Florida’s own lackluster opener — a 24-7 win against Massachusetts that was close through the first three quarters — look far more encouraging.
There alsois the business of the Gators’ 29-game winning streak against Kentucky, dating back to 1987, which McElwain has downplayed this week.
It’s about these two teams this year, he has repeatedly said, and so here’s a breakdown of how the Gators and Wildcats match up on paper this week:
Florida: Redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio made his first collegiate start last weekend and fared well, completing 29 of 44 passes for 256 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. It wasn’t an overwhelming debut, as his longest completion came on a 26-yard screen pass to Brandon Powell for a touchdown. McElwain highlighted the Gators’ lack of “explosive plays” in his critique of the offense, but he was generally pleased with Del Rio’s performance. The fourth-year sophomore showed poise and confidence in the pocket and made good decisions. Whether he can be more than an effective game manager is yet to be determined, but Florida should open the playbook a little more this week to see what he can do.
Kentucky: Redshirt sophomore Drew Barker’s season debut was quite the opposite from Del Rio’s. He wasn’t lacking for explosive plays, but his struggles in the second half last week against Southern Miss contributed to the Wildcats’ collapse. Barker, who made five appearances with two starts last season, looked phenomenal early in that game while completing 11 of 19 passes for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first half. He became the first Kentucky quarterback since 2007 to throw four touchdowns in a half. The second half was a different story, though. Barker threw for just 36 yards with an interception and two lost fumbles the rest of the way. He has the potential to elevate the Kentucky offense, but he faces a tough test with his first road start coming in The Swamp against Florida’s vaunted secondary.
Florida: Florida still wants to employ a committee approach at running back even though sophomore Jordan Scarlett was the best of the bunch against UMass, rushing for 70 yards on 13 carries. The coaches remain high on junior college newcomer Mark Thompson, who had a rough debut with a couple dropped passes and just 22 yards on six carries. He should be significantly involved in the game plan again, while sophomore Jordan Cronkrite also will work into the mix.
Kentucky: Junior Stanley “Boom” Williams led Kentucky on the ground with 13 rushes for 94 yards last week. The 5-foot-9 running back had an encouraging sophomore season, rushing for 855 yards on 121 attempts for an average of 5.7 yards per carry in 2015. He doesn’t often get into the end zone, though. That responsibility falls on senior JoJo Kemp, who rumbled for 555 yards and 4 touchdowns last season.
Florida: The Gators endured a significant loss when junior Dre Massey went down with a torn ACL in the season opener. He was projected for big things in his first year with the program. Florida still has a nice one-two combo with sophomore Antonio Callaway (8 catches for 72 yards and a touchdown last week) and junior Brandon Powell (7-73-1). The question is who will step up as the best third option. Junior C.J. Worton is expected to return from a high-ankle sprain this week, highly-touted true freshman Tyrie Cleveland also is supposed to make his season debut after a one-game suspension and the Gators have a bevy of other young receivers who will get a chance to prove themselves. But if Worton can have the kind of breakout junior season some were expecting from him, and/or if Cleveland can play up to his considerable potential, the Gators should be strong here. Also, Florida gets redshirt-sophomore tight end C’yontai Lewis back from a one-game suspension. McElwain has suggested he and junior DeAndre Goolsby could be used in more two-tight-end sets.
Kentucky: Junior Garrett Johnson is the Wildcats’ top receiving threat and got off to a nice start with 6 catches for 143 yards and 2 touchdowns in the opener. He also led the team last season with 694 receiving yards on 46 catches. Kentucky has a couple other playmakers in redshirt-junior Jeff Badet, who turned a screen pass into a 72-yard score last week, and redshirt freshman Tavin Richardson (2 catches for 74 yards).
Florida: The Florida offensive line was a storyline all preseason as optimism swirled that the Gators’ three sophomore starters — left guard Martez Ivey, right guard Tyler Jordan and right tackle Fred Johnson —would be much improved after getting forced into action as true freshmen last year. Overall, the unit gave up more sacks (46) than any FBS team in 2015. While Florida surrendered only one sack against UMass, the line did little to allay concerns. McElwain called out the group for being sluggish between plays getting to the line, and Del Rio was under decent pressure much of the game. That unit simply has to get better if Florida is going to improve offensively this year.
Kentucky: The Wildcats have a veteran offensive front, led by four returning starters in redshirt-junior left guard Nick Haynes (6-foot-3, 316 pounds), redshirt-senior center Jon Toth (6-5, 310), redshirt-junior right guard Ramsey Meyers (6-4, 305) and redshirt-junior right tackle Kyle Meadows (6-5, 300). Redshirt junior Cole Mosier (6-6, 335) takes over at left tackle this fall, but he made three starts over the last two seasons and has played in 24 games now. That said, the Wildcats yielded 30 sacks in 2015 and gave up four to Southern Miss last weekend so they aren’t exactly off to a great start either.
Florida: McElwain didn’t think the Florida defensive line played to its potential in the opener, but the unit does indeed boast plenty of potential. Redshirt-junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley projects to have a huge season, but he was quiet last week with just one tackle. Same for fifth-year senior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and versatile sophomore CeCe Jefferson. All of those guys, among others, are capable of making a significant impact, though. The stars up front last week were redshirt-sophomore nose tackle Khairi Clark and redshirt-freshman defensive end Jabari Zuniga (2 sacks).
Kentucky: The Wildcats have a mostly rebuilt defensive line, turning to new starters in redshirt-sophomore defensive tackle Adrian Middleton, junior nose guard Matt Elam (four starts in 2015) and senior defensive end Courtney Miggins. Redshirt sophomore Denzil Ware (2 tackles for loss, 1 sack last week) plays a hybrid end/outside linebacker position and started 11 games last year.
Florida: McElwain said after the opener Saturday night that he believes senior Jarrad Davis and redshirt-junior Alex Anzalone are as good as any pair of linebackers in the country. They certainly were standouts last week. Davis led the team with 9 total tackles while Anzalone lived up to the hype in his return from the shoulder injury that limited him to two games last fall. Poised for a breakout season, Anzalone had a sack and a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage along with 6 tackles. Meanwhile, senior Daniel McMillian — the Gators’ third linebacker — is projected to play after practicing through an ankle injury this week.
Kentucky: This next stat is not a misprint, promise. Kentucky sophomore linebacker Jordan Jones tallied 19 total tackles, including 2 tackles for loss and a sack, last Saturday. He was making his first career start. Not bad. Jones serves as the Wildcats’ weakside linebacker while redshirt junior Courtney Love (also not a misprint), who transferred from Nebraska, operates in the middle. Sophomore Josh Allen mans the strong-side. Like Jones, Love was making his Kentucky debut last week while it was Allen’s first start.
Florida: Star junior cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor makes his season debut this week after serving a one-game suspension. He and fellow junior Quincy Wilson give the Gators one of the top cornerback pairings in the SEC, if not the country. They’ll be eager to make their mark against a Kentucky offense that threw 16 interceptions last season — tied for the most in the SEC. Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Marcus Maye is a stalwart at safety for the Gators while juniors Marcell Harris and Nick Washington continue to split time at the other safety spot. Junior nickelback Duke Dawson is good to go after leaving the opener due to injury.
Kentucky: The Wildcats have a young secondary, but that doesn’t mean they lack experience. Sophomore cornerback Chris Westry was named to the SEC All-Freshmen team last fall after starting all 12 games of his rookie season. He had 2 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. He pairs with fellow sophomore Derrick Baity, who made four starts at the end of last season. At strong safety, redshirt-sophomore Mike Edwards made five starts at the end of last season and tallied 9 total tackles against Southern Miss last weekend. The veterans of the bunch are senior free safety Marcus McWilson and redshirt-senior nickelback J.D. Harmon (team-high 3 interceptions last year).
Florida: Eddy, Eddy, Eddy. Rookie kicker Eddy Pineiro could not have had a better collegiate debut. He was 3-for-3 on field goals last week with makes of 40, 49 and 48 yards and had another would-be made field goal taken off the board by a penalty on UMass. For a Gators team that made just 7 of 17 field goal tries in 2015, Pineiro’s performance was significant — and probably a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, redshirt-junior punter Johnny Townsend is steady as they come. The question for the Gators is who will return kickoffs. They lost one starting receiver to injury on a kickoff return when Massey tore his ACL on the opening kick last Saturday. Do they want to risk Powell or Callaway back there too?
Kentucky: Junior kicker Austin MacGinnis is a proven veteran, having made 34 of 44 field-goal attempts in his career. That included a program-record streak of 11 consecutive made field goals. He also has quite a history with the Gators. In the teams’ 2014 clash in The Swamp, MacGinnis kicked a 51-yard field goal with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter to tie the game and eventually force overtime. He was 3 for 4 overall in that game but missed a 41-yarder in overtime as Florida went on to win 36-30. Last season against the Gators, he made two field goals in the fourth quarter and accounted for all of Kentucky’s points in a 14-9 loss. Kentucky’s punter is a little less experienced. Grant McKinniss is a true freshman. Yes, MacGinnis and McKinniss — also not a misprint. The Wildcats spread their kickoff returns around last week.
The Florida offense still has plenty of questions to answer, but the Gators defense should set the tone in this game. Barker is an intriguing young quarterback for Kentucky. This is just a brutal matchup for a guy making his first road start. While many fans were critical of Del Rio’s Florida debut due to the lack of big plays, the Gators should be more aggressive with their play-calling against an SEC opponent, and there were enough positives in his performance to build upon moving forward. It also sets up as a conducive matchup after Kentucky gave up 520 yards last week to Southern Miss. Overall, it’s just hard to envision a scenario in which the Gators don’t extend their dominance over Kentucky to 30 straight wins. Then again, it was hard to envision Florida barely leading UMass after three quarters last week.