A palpable energy surrounded the Florida football team in the days following its week one victory over Utah.
Headed into the season opener, the Gators were considered home underdogs. It seemed like Florida’s fate of a mediocre first season under head coach Billy Napier was sealed by many fans and media outlets.
UF, however, put the country on notice. After a program record jump from unranked to No. 12 in the AP Poll following the upset, the Gators are now expected to prove they aren’t just a one-hit-wonder.
Florida (1-0) has a prime opportunity to prove itself against the No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats (1-0) at home Saturday, in what will be both teams’ first Southeastern Conference matchup of the season.
Kentucky began the season ranked 20th and found itself in the same position for week two. The Wildcats took on a less challenging opponent in Miami (Ohio) last week, coming away with a 37-13 victory. Despite the statline, many perceived the Wildcats to be less dominant than expected over a smaller school. However, Florida head coach Billy Napier sees no reason the Gators should discredit UK’s ability.
“They're just as good as anybody in the country. This is a good developmental program that I have nothing but respect for,” Napier said. “So you've got to beat Kentucky. They're going to make you beat them.”
The Wildcats fit the description of any SEC team: fast, physical and capable of making plays on either side of the ball. With running backs Chris Rodriguez Jr., Ramon Jefferson and Jutahn MccClain all struggling with suspensions or injuries, Kentucky will rely on its signal caller Will Levis to carry the load this week.
Levis dominated the Redhawks through the air, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, he will more than likely have to produce similar numbers against Florida to lead his team out of the Swamp with a win. In Kentucky’s 20-13 victory over the Gators last season, he threw for just 87 yards and one score. A depleted backfield will force the Wildcats to adjust their game plan for UF.
The Gators must be weary of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops’ air assault. UF struggled to combat Utah’s duo of quarterback Cam Rising and tight end Brant Kuithe. The Utes recorded 216 yards through the air against Florida. The Gators held firm last week thanks to a game-winning interception from fifth-year linebacker Amari Burney, but the defense struggled against Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham’s offense throughout the game.
For UF’s offense, the main variable is how well its game plan will apply to SEC opponents. Obviously sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson will be looking to make the big-time plays, but Florida’s committee of running backs could be the X-factor Saturday.
The trio of Nay’Quan Wright, Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne were effective last week, rushing for 177 yards against Utah’s defense. Johnson punched in an important go-ahead score for UF in the fourth quarter, his first touchdown as a Gator.
Richardson assisted the ground game as well, adding 106 yards and a career-high three rushing touchdowns. Johnson gave credit to Richardson for boosting the rushing offense.
“It takes a lot of pressure off me,” Johnson said. “When we fake the ball going this way, Anthony going the other way, the defense doesn't know who has the ball. So it affects the run game a lot.”
The Gators’ offense appears potent, but an SEC matchup will bea true litmus test. Kentucky’s defense isn’t atop the conference, but it is far from a scratch and will certainly challenge Florida.
Two top-20 opponents to open the season is unconventional and a tall task for any team. If the Gators can secure a victory, however, they will cement themselves as one of the better teams in the nation — officially exceeding the expectations many laid out for them.
Kickoff between Florida and Kentucky is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The game will broadcast on ESPN.
Contact Jackson Castellano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jaxacastellano.
Jackson Castellano is a UF journalism junior and The Alligator's Summer 2023 Sports Editor. He has previously served as the assistant sports editor and a reporter covering football, men's basketball and baseball. In his free time, Jackson reluctantly cheers for the Houston Rockets.