For the fourth straight season, Florida finds itself undefeated after four weeks.
After shutting out overmatched Kentucky at home on Saturday, No. 11 UF (4-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) turns its focus to a more difficult task.
Florida has a bye next week before taking on No. 3 LSU at home on Oct. 6.
Despite the 38-0 win — the first shutout of a conference opponent in 11 years and the 26th straight win against Kentucky — there’s work to be done for Florida.
“We’ve got to continue to press forward,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said.
“We’re not where we want to be. We’ve got a lot of things to clean up, a lot of errors here and there that we need to clean up as we move forward.”
This situation looks familiar.
Florida started 4-0 last season before then-No. 3 Alabama blew UF out by 28 points at home.
Florida finished the season 3-6 and couldn’t contend with the SEC elite.
This year is supposed to be different.
“We’re more physical on both lines of scrimmage,” Muschamp said. “We’re tied together better as far as what we are and what we want to be because we’re better on both lines of scrimmage. We’re deeper. We’re more mature. We handle things a lot better. We’re a year older, [and we’re] more experienced.”
The bye week comes at a convenient time for Florida, which was without several key players against Kentucky.
Trey Burton missed the game with back spasms, defensive end Dominique Easley was unavailable because of swelling in his left knee and linebacker Jelani Jenkins still had his right arm in a cast.
The depleted Florida defense, which lost defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd to a shoulder injury in the second quarter, picked up a sluggish offense.
As a group, Florida had its best defensive performance of the season in the passing game.
Improved depth along the defensive line has allowed Florida to drop into coverage and force more turnovers.
With three interceptions against Kentucky, Florida increased its turnover margin for the season to plus-5. The Gators finished last season at minus-12. Florida generated three or more turnovers only once in 2011.
The coaches made sure the lack of takeaways didn’t carry over to 2012. They placed an emphasis on it during the offseason.
“Eventually you get tired of it, and you want to do something about it,” linebacker Mike Taylor said. “We got tired of it.”
Kentucky’s starting quarterback, Maxwell Smith, missed the game due to a shoulder injury. He entered as the SEC’s leading passer.
Senior Morgan Newton started in his place and went 7 for 21 for 48 yards with three interceptions. He completed only 33 percent of his passes — the lowest against the Gators all season.
Running back Mike Gillislee scored Florida’s first touchdown on a 1-yard run with 12 minutes left in the second quarter, pushing UF’s lead to 10 points.
Then Newton became a consistent source of offense for Florida.
Three second quarter interceptions turned into seven Florida points.
Junior Jaylen Watkins slid under a route, intercepted the pass and took the ball 26 yards for the first touchdown and interception of his UF career.
“We went over this before the game,” Watkins said. “I watched the film at home. The guy’s running a stack formation, and I knew it was coming.”
Florida faced Newton last season in Lexington and forced three turnovers.
“We just read his eyes,” Taylor said. “He went through his progressions and as he was going through his progression, we were reading him.”
Kentucky outgained Florida by 12 yards in the first quarter, but the Gators’ offense found a groove. Methodical drives led by quarterback Jeff Driskel kept UF’s defense fresh on the sidelines.
Florida converted 12 of 17 third-down opportunities and held a 15-minute advantage in time of possession.
Driskel engineered a season best 15-play, 72-yard drive that lasted nine minutes in the third quarter.
“We were running the ball hard and we were converting on third down,” Driskel said. “That was a big thing coming into this week.
“We did a real nice job of protecting and getting open and making the plays. That was good for our offense and good for our team.”
Florida moved up three spots to No. 11 in the AP Poll following the victory.
The Gators have displayed the toughness the coaches have been looking for in each of their three conference wins.
With a new starting quarterback and another year adjusting to Muschamp’s style, there is a sense of optimism surrounding the Gators.
“It’s definitely a little bit different this year,” Driskel said.
“We’ve played three SEC teams already, and that’s huge. Going 3-0 in the SEC to start the year, and with us, we’re not done yet. We’re going to keep working hard and keep playing hard.”
Contact Adam Pincus at [email protected].