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Sunday, May 29, 2022

alligatorSports roundtable: Florida vs. Kentucky

The Gators play in front of a hostile crowd for the first time in almost two years against the Wildcats

A Florida player touches his helmet during warmups before a game against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 4.
A Florida player touches his helmet during warmups before a game against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 4.

Florida football leaves the Sunshine State for the first time this season, with a duel with the Kentucky Wildcats on tap Saturday night from Kroger Field. The Gators look to move above .500 in the Southeastern Conference, and the Wildcats put their undefeated record on the line in front of their home fans. Our football writers give their thoughts on what the fifth game of the season could hold.

Ryan: For the second straight week, Florida’s offense takes on an SEC East defense in a battle of strength on strength. Everyone’s waxed poetic about UF’s running game all season, and it’s deserved it. The Gators are third in the country with 322.5 rushing yards per game, averaging 7.46 yards per attempt, haven’t rushed for less than 244 yards in any of their four games this season and boast five 100-yard rushers already in 2021. 

Enter the Wildcats. Undefeated Kentucky, who beat Missouri and South Carolina already in the conference, is surrendering merely 87.5 rushing yards per game at 2.9 yards per clip. Elite, right? 

Well, yes and no. They’re 20th in the country in rushing defense, yes. In the Wildcats’ season-opener against Louisiana-Monroe, however, they surrendered 17 yards on a staggering 43 attempts. If that game is removed from the math, Kentucky’s line let through 333 yards (111 per game) at just under 4.3 yards per attempt. That would land them in a tie for 35th in the country. All of the sudden, Florida head coach Dan Mullen can lose a little less sleep.

That’s not to say UF can waltz right into Kroger and leave 4-1. Kentucky boasts what might be one of the most potent offenses in the division behind quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. It has scored 31 points per game and, perhaps more notably, is averaging nearly nine yards a passing attempt. Levis isn’t a perfect quarterback (five early interceptions), but he brings an aerial element the Wildcats have missed in years past.

The away crowd might not rival Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in terms of noise or capacity, but it’ll give Florida quarterback Emory Jones a little to think about early. I think Florida starts slow, but like oil in a glass of water, eventually the UF rushing attack will rise to the top. Gators 34, Kentucky 24.

Zachary: It’s been a busy week for me, so forgive me if my analysis isn’t as long as my fellow writers. Florida’s offense took quite a step forward last week versus Tennessee. Quarterback Emory Jones had his cleanest game as a starter and performed well. Over the last few games, the offensive line has seen several players go down with injuries. Most of them returned, but it remains to be seen if they are at 100%.  The defense still looked suspect, with several missed tackles in the Florida secondary that sprung big touchdown plays. The key for Florida is slowing down Kentucky’s run game and winning the turnover battle. Florida wins 28-14.

Michael: The undefeated Wildcats will be ready to play in this one. This game will come down to Florida’s secondary vs Kentucky’s pass offense. Levis needs to balance his good and his bad to have a shot at dethroning the Gators. Kentucky’s top-receiving threat, Wan’Dale Robinson, is a big play waiting to happen and one of the most talented wideouts UF has faced this year, and he’ll pose a challenge for lockdown corner Kaiir Elam. If Levis can create some jump plays through the air, this game will be much closer than UF fans want to admit. 

Florida’s run defense will also be given a challenge in the form of Rodriguez. The running back has run for 513 yards in four games so far this season, the fifth most in the FBS, and averages over six yards per carry. 

On the other side of the ball, Florida needs a strong showing from Jones — I know, hot take to say the quarterback needs to play well. This is Florida’s first true road test since the early days of Kyle Trask: How will Jones react to the hostile crowd? He’s been nothing short of elite since the second half against Alabama, and his ability to make clutch throws could determine the outcome of this game. Florida’s run offense will do what it does, and it will move the ball, but both parts of the offense need to click.

This UK team is the third-best team in the SEC East and will pose Florida’s biggest challenge until it gets to Jacksonville at the end of the month. In the end, I think UF’s talent wins out, and the Gators cover the 7.5-point spread, but barely. Florida struggles early but pulls away in the second half for a 31-21 victory.

Contact Ryan Haley at Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Contact Zachary Huber at Follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber.

Contact Michael Hull at Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a third-year journalism major with a specialization in sports & media. He has a minor in business and leadership and is a struggling Jacksonville Jaguars fan.

Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.

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