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Thursday, February 02, 2023

Know Your Enemy: Kentucky Wildcats

Sports editor Joseph Henry leads a Q&A session with Kentucky Kernel sports editor Cole Parke

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis throws a pass during the Wildcats game against Miami (Ohio) Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Kentucky Kernel
Kentucky quarterback Will Levis throws a pass during the Wildcats game against Miami (Ohio) Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Kentucky Kernel

Last weekend was a wild one in Gainesville. Florida knocked off a top-10 team and showed the college football world its potential. Week two offers a new challenge, however, the beginning of Southeastern Conference play. 

I connected with Cole Parke, sports editor of the Kentucky Kernel, for the first Know Your Enemy of this season. 

The latest AP poll had Florida jump from unranked to No. 12. Meanwhile Kentucky stayed put at No. 20. What are your thoughts on the rankings and this Saturday now being a top-20 showdown? 

Parke: Personally, I'm not one to call overrated or say teams don't deserve their rankings so I didn't feel as many did when they saw Florida's jump, though it is not common to see a team go from unranked to No. 12 after one game. Then again, not every unranked team beats a playoff hopeful in week one either. I have no issues with Florida being given a lot of credit and jumping that high after that win. I also have no issues with the Gators jumping Kentucky in the AP Poll.

The Wildcats did finish with a good score-line against Miami (Ohio), but there were a lot of concerns raised in that win as well. While the result was never really in doubt, Kentucky did not look as convincing as many expected it to, so I think the Cats staying put in the rankings was justified until the AP voters can see more to lean one way or the other.

There has been news swirling this week about injuries to some Kentucky players, especially in the running back room. What's the latest update on the Wildcats backfield? 

Parke: Before the season began, we knew starting back Chris Rodriguez Jr. would still be out due to his suspension, so that was a hit already. Beyond that, both Ramon Jefferson and JuTahn McClain appeared to suffer injuries against the RedHawks, with the former being ruled out 'indefinitely' and is certain to miss the Florida game. McClain, on the other hand, is 'week-to-week' so there is not much of a status update to give on him. One thing is for sure: the running back position went from one of Kentucky's biggest strengths to biggest weaknesses really quickly.

UK quarterback Will Levis threw for 303 yards and three scores against Miami (Ohio) last Saturday. How do you think he fares against a more talented Florida secondary this weekend? 

Parke: That's tricky. It is worth noting that, with the exception of the 45-42 loss to Tennessee last season, Levis has not thrown for 200 yards or more against any SEC opponents and has also thrown an interception in all but one road game so far, including the bowl game. 

His decision making was something he said he focused on in the offseason and, despite having an interception against Miami (Ohio), it's something he has been happy with. He cited overthinking that led to accuracy issues as the reason for the RedHawk pick. Looking at these facts I may appear overly negative, but the nature of college football with the cycle of development and year-to-year changes makes it difficult to predict how he will actually do. If this was last year, I would expect Florida to get the better of him, but this year it is to be determined. 

Who anchors Kentucky's defensive unit? How will the Wildcats match up with Florida's run-heavy offense and Anthony Richardson's dual-threat ability?  

Parke: Jacquez Jones. The veteran inside linebacker has been referred to as the quarterback of the defense. Jones spoke over the summer about how he worked with Levis to better both of them and allow him to better read what a quarterback is going to do. 

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With mobile quarterbacks there's always going to be immense pressure on the defensive line to contain the quarterback, but I really think UK's defense is going to live and die by its linebackers and how well they can multitask. Both preventing passes and containing rushes from Richardson.

The Gators historical dominance over Kentucky used to be a prominent storyline heading into this match up every year. Now, Kentucky walks into the Swamp after beating Florida last season. Do you think that factors into Saturday's game at all? 

Parke: I think it definitely factors. I can assure you Kentucky fans have not forgotten those 30-plus years of losing to the Gators. After winning at the Swamp in 2018 and defeating Florida last year I think Kentucky fans feel as though they're no longer the same team that lost all those years in a row, but they certainly remember those years and they want nothing more than to walk into Gainesville and defeat the Gators.

As for if it's a focus for the team. I think it would be hard for it not to be. Even though head coach Mark Stoops has brought this Kentucky team to heights previously unimaginable, he lost to Florida five years in a row to start his tenure and he recognizes what this game means to Wildcats fans. The story has changed but it is still a story I would say.

Finally, how do you see this year's game going down? Do the Wildcats walk out of Gainesville with a win, or does UF pick up its second top-20 victory in as many weeks? 

Parke: That's an incredibly difficult question to answer. I think both teams are more than capable of winning. That said, if we're going purely off what was shown in week one, I would have to go with Florida. I will admit I bought into the Utah hype and had them in my playoff prediction and to see Florida not just keep it close but ultimately win? That's big.  

Whether or not you attribute that more to Richardson and the team or the home crowd creating a hostile environment, Kentucky will have both of those factors against them Saturday and won't have Rodriguez Jr. either. If you want an honest prediction, I say Florida remains undefeated against top-25 opponents this season through two weeks.

Gators: 37

Wildcats: 24

Contact Joseph Henry at jhenry@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.

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Joseph Henry

Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper. 


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