No. 22 Florida-Kentucky Breakdown & Prediction

Breakdown & Prediction

by Inside the Gators Staff
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Inside the Gators Zack Weiss and Mark Wheeler take a closer look at Saturday’s match-up between No. 22 Florida and Kentucky including thoughts on Graham Mertz, the Gators’ run game, as well as offering up a score prediction.

Can Graham Mertz continue to be efficient, even in a hostile environment?

Weiss: Through four games, Graham Mertz leads the SEC in completion percentage at 77.8%. He’s top five in completions, top seven in yards per pass, and top eight in quarterback rating – all while having been sacked nine times, which is the fourth-most among SEC quarterbacks. Long story short, he’s been quite good in the Orange & Blue – quite good and incredibly efficient. However, that’s with three of his four games having been at home in The Swamp. The one game he’s played thus far for the Gators in a hostile environment, Week 1 at Utah, didn’t go so smoothly. He played well, completing 70% of his throws for 333 yards, a touchdown, and an interception, but the offense faltered nonetheless; Florida scored just 11 points. Now, the question is whether he and the Gators’ offense can perform out of Gainesville the same way they have been these last three weeks on Steve Spurrier-Florida Field. Because, at this point, there’s no way to be sure – not until it’s seen.

Wheeler: Let me preface this by stating that I was wrong about Graham Mertz. Coming in, based on his Wisconsin statistics, I thought he was average at best, and would likely take a step back from that. Give both Mertz and Billy Napier credit for being able to tailor the offense to what he does best. That being short, pinpoint throws to give the receivers an opportunity to make plays. That is the plan, and he has performed it flawlessly. The question is, how long will the dink and dunk, with no threat of going deep, work against SEC competition? To this point, against the two P5 opponents, 50 of Mertz’s 66 pass attempts (75.7%) have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. At some point, defenses are going to start to crowd the box and shut down all those underneath throws and dare Florida to go deep. How efficient is Mertz going to be then is the question.

The Gators’ run game was dominant during that three-game home stretch. How will it translate to Lexington?

Weiss: In their wins vs. McNeese, Tennessee, and Charlotte, the Gators averaged 215 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns per game. In their loss to Utah, the Gators ran for just 13 yards and no scores on 21 carries. So, history tells us that this Florida team is at its best when the run game is dominant. Now the question is whether it can be in Lexington, where Kentucky is top ten in rushing defense among D1 schools; they rank ninth, before UCLA and after Kansas St. The Wildcats are allowing just 77.5 rushing yards per game and an average of 2.6 yards per carry. If Florida can get Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne going, its prospects of winning Saturday look good. If the ground game struggles like it did last time the Gators were on the road, chances are bleak.

Wheeler: What makes this game so difficult to get a feel for is that by this point in the season, almost every team has played at least one quality opponent – and because of that you can get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses. That isn’t the case with Kentucky. Are they legitimately strong against the run, or is their No. 8 national ranking a product of their schedule? Going off Mark Stoops‘ history, I would guess it is likely somewhere in the middle. Getting Kingsley Eguakun back in the starting lineup is big for the Gators, but the overall effectiveness of the running game is more likely to be dependent on Florida’s ability to pass the ball.

Would a win this weekend mean that Florida really has a chance to be 6-1 going into the Georgia game?

Weiss: It absolutely would. The games after Kentucky and before Georgia are home vs. unranked Vanderbilt and away vs. unranked South Carolina. Now, neither are “gimme’s” by any stretch of the imagination; but assuming the Gators beat the Wildcats, they should be favored in both. And if Florida can make it to Jacksonville, going eye-to-eye with Georgia, at 6-1, I’m not going to say what you’re probably thinking; but, yeah, there’s a shot. None of this matters without a win this weekend, though. So, first things first: tame the Wildcats.

Wheeler: We would be putting the cart before the horse to start taking this game for granted, considering it is on the road, against an undefeated Kentucky squad that has beaten Florida two years in a row. Plus, 6-1 going into Jacksonville would mean UF is going to beat Vanderbilt, who of course won the game last year. However, while going to South Carolina certainly isn’t a ‘gimme’ by any stretch of the imagination, if Florida can win in Lexington, they can certainly win in Columbia to set up an epic showdown against Georgia in Jacksonville.


Weiss: Simply put, we haven’t seen this version of the Gators perform well on the road – never mind against a top-ten rushing defense. Also taking into consideration the noon kickoff, which always comes with some sort of weirdness, I need to see a good Florida performance in hostile territory before I bet on it. The 22-point performance at home vs. Charlotte last week wasn’t exactly confidence-inducing. 24-17 Kentucky

Wheeler: Normally, right or wrong, for better or for worse, I feel like I have a sense for how a game is going to go by at least mid-week. I’ll admit, even while writing my portion of this week’s Breakdown, I am still mulling this over. Kentucky hasn’t been tested this year, but they are at home. Florida has a big win under its belt, but Billy Napier is 1-6 away from the Swamp, and Kroger Field is an underrated venue when it comes to home-field advantages. 20-16 Kentucky

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