LEXINGTON — This may be too soon in the Mark Stoops’ era for the Kentucky Wildcats to break a 26-year losing skid to the Florida Gators, but Saturday’s battle between those two Southeastern Conference teams promises to be one of their closest ones in years.
Florida (2-1 overall, 1-0 in SEC play) and Kentucky (1-2, 0-0) kick off at 7 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium, with television coverage on ESPNU.
Florida has won the last five meetings by an average margin of 47-7, including 38-0 last season in Gainesville.
This year’s Gators have been typically solid defensively, giving up just 15 points a game.
But coach Will Muschamp’s team is dealing with the loss of, arguably, its best defender in senior tackle Dominic Easley. Easley suffered a torn ACL in the Gators’ 31-17 win over Tennessee last Saturday in Gainesville.
Easley was an all-over-the-field beast for the Gators. Florida’s defense is still plenty good without Easley, but at least a tad more vulnerable.
Offensively, the Gators are also dealing with a significant injury, also suffered in the lethargic win over UT, this time in the person of junior quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Driskel broke a leg in the first quarter of that game.
Whether that hurts the Gators or not is wide open to debate. Junior Tyler Murphy came in for Driskel vs. the Vols and improved steadily as the game progressed. Murphy is clearly a better running threat than Driskel. Whether he can pass as well remains to be seen.
Florida appears to be at least slightly better in the backfield and at wide receiver this season, with wide receiver — of course — being the position coached by former UK head man Joker Phillips.
Junior Mack Brown leads the Florida rushing attack with 75.7 yards per game.
A trio of wideouts — seniors Trey Burton and Solomon Patton, and junior Quinton Dunbar — are all averaging more than 50 yards apiece in receiving yardage each time out.
Stoops said the strength of the Gators remains constant — physicality.
“They want to be physical,” said Stoops, who competed against Florida annually in his three seasons as defensive coordinator at Florida State. “They are so very good ... very talented, very physical offensively and defensively.
Stoops’ Wildcats have shown considerable improvement in pretty much all areas through three games, with the possible exception of the quarterback position.
Sophomore quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith have both played erratic football so far, though they have not been helped by a receiving corps that has had buttery fingers at times.
Smith had to leave the 27-13 loss to Louisville Sept. 14 in the third quarter with an apparent aggravation of an old shoulder injury.
But the good news out of the UK camp this week is that Smith’s shoulder not only appears fine, but offensive coordinator Neal Brown said Smith has been throwing the ball this week better than ever.
“I think the (bye) week did him well,’’ Brown said of Smith. “No signs of the injury to me. He’s thrown the ball well.”
Brown would not say whether Smith or Whitlow will get the start at QB Saturday.
“But they’ll play better,” Brown said of his quarterbacks.
The Wildcats hope for more consistency from running backs Jojo Kemp, Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, and for fewer drops from a receiving corps that includes budding stars in Franklin County grad Ryan Timmons, as well as guys like Javess Blue and Jeff Badet.
Kemp broke through with some good runs in the loss to Louisville, and leads UK’s rushers with 55.7 yards per game.
Blue leads the Kentucky wideouts with 65.7 receiving yards per game.
Stoops said he’s looking for improvement across the board from his Wildcats, regardless of opponent.
“I think just with the overall preparation and just feeling more comfortable with the defense, certainly,” Stoops said when asked if he wants to see growth in specific areas. “Offensively, the same thing. Just getting familiar with what we’re doing.
“On offense — you know it and I know it — it comes down to execution a lot of times. Same thing defensively. But I see our awareness getting better defensively. That led us to play a little more aggressive the last time we played, and hopefully we’ll continue to build on that.”