The Gators will look to avoid falling on the wrong side of history when they make their trip to Lexington, Kentucky to take on the Wildcats.
Florida recently held one of the longest winning streaks against a single opponent against Kentucky — 31 consecutive victories dating from 1987 to 2017. The streak is the fifth-longest in NCAA history and is the longest in-conference winning streak against a single opponent in SEC history.
However, the Gators dropped their last two to the Wildcats and will look to avoid a three-game skid to Kentucky for the first time since UF lost four straight between the 1948 to 1951 seasons.
The No. 22 Florida Gators (3-1, 1-0 SEC) will look to continue their winning ways when they head on the road to play the Kentucky Wildcats (4-0, 1-0 SEC). UF’s players have emphasized the importance of staying on track and ending their losing streak to Kentucky.
Redshirt freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham noted how the team’s thought process has shifted, he said, and there’s an added sense of urgency about how the team cannot slip up and lose another game.
“I feel like that mindset that we have had throughout practice has upped the ante a bit,” Boardingham said in a Wednesday press conference.
Aside from the rare losing streak, the noon kickoff time for Saturday’s matchup is also unique.
The Gators and Wildcats have kicked off at night every year the game has been in Lexington dating back to 2009. The last time these teams kicked off as early as this season’s game was 2003 when the game kicked off at 12:30 p.m. and UF won 24-21.
The early kick-off time is also the first noon kickoff of the Gators’ 2023 season. Florida played in prime time in all four of its games this season, but there will be no change in approach.
“Nothing really changes for us except throughout the day except we get done earlier, nothing really too different,” Boardingham said.
The Gators will see the return of several key players for the SEC road game. Standout freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III is back starting on the depth chart after he missed the Charlotte game with an injury.
“The guy’s a unique player,” Florida head coach Billy Napier said Wednesday. “It’s always good when he’s in there.”
The offensive line will also have veteran redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun back.
Junior right guard Micah Mazzccua and redshirt sophomore right tackle Damieon George Jr. are also back after serving first-half suspensions last week due to a scuffle at the end of the Tennessee game.
“I think Kingsley’s presence affects our offensive unit,” Napier said. “He’s got an edge about him that rubs off on the other guys.”
The return of the three offensive linemen will mean Florida will have its original line that helped UF take down the then-No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers Sept. 16.
The Gators will take their fifth-ranked defense on the road for the second SEC test of the season.
Kentucky returns several starters on offense who could prove to be issues to the UF defense. Redshirt senior wide receiver Tayvion Robinson leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. He has 16 catches for 283 yards and three touchdowns.
In Florida’s 26-16 loss to the Wildcats last season, sophomore wide receiver Dane Key led the team with three catches for 83 receiving yards and a touchdown. Key has excelled in his second season in Lexington with 13 catches, 196 yards and two touchdown grabs.
The Gators are ready for the challenge posed by Kentucky’s offensive threats.
“I feel like we're gonna go out there and execute a lot,” said junior defensive lineman Cam Jackson in a Wednesday press conference. “I'm just ready to see how it's gonna be.”
The Wildcats also feature a dangerous run game led by senior running back Ray Davis. He’s averaging 6.3 yards per carry and has 324 yards on the season so far on 50 carries. Davis has reached the end zone five times this season as well.
Jackson emphasized the importance of stopping the run game and turning Kentucky into a one-dimensional team offensively.
“It's gonna be real important,” he said. “Like I tell the D-Line, it always starts with us.”
While redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz leads the Gators, the Wildcats also feature a transfer quarterback starting behind center. North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary has thrown for 1,060 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions with Kentucky.
"Devin is a fantastic player,” Napier said Wednesday. “He's in his first year in the new system, and I think he's gotten a little bit better each week."
The Wildcats defense will look to slow down the Gators offense. Key players to who could make an impact are sophomores defensive back Maxwell Hairston and defensive lineman Deone Walker and junior inside linebacker Trevin Wallace.
Hairston has compiled 23 tackles and has proven to be a ballhawk through four games with three interceptions — including two pick sixes against Vanderbilt.
Walker and Wallace have posed a threat in the pass rush with a combined five sacks. Wallace has wreaked havoc in the backfield with five tackles for loss.
Napier praised the Wildcats’ defense and recognized the challenge they could pose to the UF offense.
“They've got an identity,” Napier said Monday. “They're systematic in what they do, and they do a really good job, play well at all levels of the defense, in my opinion.”
The Gators will kickoff at Kroger Field at noon Saturday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.