GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As several Florida players took turns speaking with reporters after practice Tuesday night, one-by-one the team’s younger guys surprisingly claimed they weren’t even aware of the Gators’ 30-game winning streak over Kentucky.
“I actually didn’t know that,” redshirt freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon said.
“That’s my first time hearing about that,” redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Luke Ancrum said. “We don’t try to look on the outside; we try to stay focused on us and trying to be 1-0 [this week].”
But really, no talk whatsoever of the streak?
“Uh, no. I wasn’t (aware). Now I am,” sophomore wide receiver Freddie Swain said. “They just tell us it’s another game, don’t take anybody lightly.”
It’s hard to hear anybody talk about this Florida-Kentucky game and not discuss the streak, which is now the fourth-longest in college football history and the longest active winning streak by one team over another in an uninterrupted annual series.
But sure, it definitely makes sense to downplay it, especially from Florida’s perspective.
That streak is looking plenty vulnerable as the No. 20 Gators (1-1) hit the road to take on an improving Kentucky program off to a 3-0 start this fall.
“I’ll let you guys talk about it,” coach Jim McElwain said Monday. “Every year it’s different. You’ve got two different teams playing, so right now it’s 0-0.”
In this case, a potentially very different Kentucky team.
Most consecutive wins over an opponent in an uninterrupted series (played in consecutive years)
|43||Notre Dame over Navy||1964-2006|
|36||Nebraska over Kansas||1969-2004|
|32||Oklahoma over Kansas State||1937-1968|
|30||Florida over Kentucky||1987-current|
|29||Nebraska over Kansas State||1969-1997|
|28||Texas over Rice||1966-1993|
|26||Syracuse over Hobart||1906-1931|
|26||Tennessee over Kentucky||1985-2010|
*Source: Florida athletics
The Gators walloped the Wildcats 45-7 in The Swamp in Week 2 of last season. That dropped the Wildcats to a humbling 0-2 as questions swirled about the direction of the program under coach Mark Stoops.
Since then? Kentucky has gone 10-4 and opened SEC play this fall with a 23-13 road win over South Carolina. Their 7-6 finish last year was the best through Stoops’ first four seasons and included the program’s first bowl game appearance since the 2010 season. Their 4-4 SEC record matched their total conference wins in Stoops’ first three seasons.
The Wildcats come into this game ranked third nationally in rush defense (57 yards per game) and eighth nationally in fumbles (4) through three games. That’s a small sample size from which to make any definitive determinations, and they are vulnerable through the air, ranking 107th allowing 289.7 passing yards per game.
But it’s easy to see what McElwain means when he says this is different brand of Kentucky football from past years.
“They’re playing the way he wants it played. I think they’ve done an outstanding job of fitting those pieces,” McElwain said. “They’ve got big, long corners that can really disrupt you on the outside. They’ve got some, what I’ve noticed is they’ve really increased their size on the inside. And you alluded to it, nobody’s running the football on them. Then when you’re not running it, it makes you one-dimensional. So I think that’s a credit to what he and his staff have been able to do.
“They’ve done some really good things there as a program emphasizing football. They’ve really given him some good things there to recruit to and obviously he’s done a heck of a job. I’ve seen it come a long ways. I mean, like you said, when I look all the way back this is a totally different Kentucky football team.”
Offensively, the Wildcats have a pair of dynamic playmakers in running back Benny Snell (272 yards, 3 touchdowns in 3 games; 1,091 rushing yards in 2016) and dual-threat quarterback Stephen Johnson (569 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 132 rushing yards, 2 TDs through three games).
“The job he’s done, that Mark has done there, is incredible,” McElwain said. “You can see now after those years, his guys there, how they play, the type of guys they have, the athletes they have. I know we felt after the season last year when we went back and did our total recap that they had some of the best skill of anybody we played.”
The storyline has already been put out there this week, though, that for Stoops and Kentucky to really earn some respect in the SEC they need to snap this streak against Florida and beat the Gators for the first time since 1986.
“That’s probably like their Super Bowl, you know what I’m saying,” Swain said, considering the weight of the streak from the other side. “If I lost to a team that long, I mean, I’d try to win too. I mean that would be a big win.”
Whether the players feel it or not, it’s also a big deal for the Gators.
After everything this team has already endured to start this season, becoming the first Florida team in more than three decades to lose to Kentucky would not help the narrative.
Fifth-year senior safety Nick Washington, who was aware of the streak at least, said it’s simply not a focus for the team, however.
“We treat every game as the most important game of the season. We’ve gone on a streak for a really long time, but that’s not the focus this week,” he said. “The focus is we play Kentucky this week so that’s the biggest game (of the moment).
“I don’t think many guys are thinking that we’ve had a really long streak going against these guys and we can’t be the team to let the university down or our fans down.”
Nonetheless, depending on the outcome, that streak will assuredly be a primary postgame topic for one side or the other Saturday night in Lexington, Ky.