So this is what it feels like. A Florida-Kentucky game week without Gators players and coaches being barraged with questions about UF’s lengthy winning streak over the Wildcats.
Without some bold UK player declaring that this is finally their year.
Without Gators fans attacking some television analyst on Twitter for predicting Kentucky to win.
Without an article talking about the price of gas or what the No. 1 movie was the week Kentucky last won.
Without having to hear about how the streak should’ve ended in 2014 and 2017.
Instead, this year’s biggest storyline is one of redemption.
On Sept. 8, 2018, Kentucky exited the Swamp with a stunning 27-19 victory that ended the longest active winning streak by one FBS team over another at 31 games.
“It was a terrible feeling,” defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “I mean, we didn’t expect to [lose], but it happened. It showed us what we needed to improve on. It showed us that we can be beat.”
On Saturday, the No. 9 Gators will try to restore order when they tangle with a new-look UK squad in Lexington.
“I don’t want that to happen again,” cornerback Marco Wilson said. “Not a good feeling to lose, so definitely just want to work on going out there and focusing on little things and make sure we get the W this time.”
The general sentiment around the players and coaches on Monday was that the loss is in the back of their minds, but it’s not going to have any impact on Saturday’s game. They’re not going to post the score from last year’s game around the facility or hype it up like it’s a rivalry game. Instead, it’s game one of the SEC season. The Wildcats are replacing some of their best players from their 2018 team, while UF will also rely on some new players. The way they look at it, these two particular teams have never played each other.
What does matter is figuring out a way to slow down Kentucky’s dynamic rushing attack. In the 2018 game, Kentucky gashed UF’s defense for 303 rushing yards, including 175 from running back Benny Snell and 105 from quarterback Terry Wilson.
It helps that Snell graduated and Wilson is out for the season with a left knee injury. Wilson’s replacement, Sawyer Smith, is more of a pocket-passer than a runner. Still, UK possesses a nice one-two punch in the backfield in A.J. Rose and Kavosiey Smoke. Smoke leads the way with 170 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries (9.4 yards-per-carry). Rose has carried the ball 33 times for 136 yards and a pair of scores.
“They got a couple nice running backs, talented players,” Shuler said. “But as soon as we knock back and beat them off the line of scrimmage, we should do all right.”
As a team, they’re averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground.
“They’re a very physical running team,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Their offensive line does a really good job. They’re a downhill team that really got after us last year and moved us around and ran the ball pretty good, so we know that’s going to be a challenge. Their runners run hard.”
Game-planning for a new quarterback also presents some unique challenges. While Dan Mullen said they’re going to watch some film from his time at Troy, there’s only so much you can glean from that given the vast differences in scheme and personnel. So, most of their game-planning is going to be based off of the limited film they have of Smith playing against Eastern Michigan last week. Grantham doesn’t anticipate UK changing their offense that much with Smith behind center.
“He’s a good athlete, not necessarily to the guy they had there before, but he’s a good enough athlete,” Grantham said. “He had a nice touchdown throw there at the end of the game. He has some nice touch on his vertical balls and things like that. He’s a competitor. He knows where to distribute the ball. So, I fully expect him to run their offense and do the things that they’ve done to win the games they’ve won the past two years. We know we have to play physical and match their intensity.”
Offensively, Mullen said one of the biggest keys is going to be Feleipe Franks recognizing the various pressures and coverages UK coach Mark Stoops likes to run and not being afraid to throw the check-down. Then, when they give him the deep pass, he needs to hit it.
More than anything schematically though, Mullen wants to see the focus and attention-to-detail in practice and games ramp up significantly. Against UT Martin, he said small errors caused the Gators to not score touchdowns on two possessions and led to five Skyhawks first downs. With the talent gap being much smaller in SEC play, the Gators can’t afford to shoot themselves in the foot. It will catch up to them eventually. A number of small mistakes added up to a humiliating loss to UK last season.
While the Gators don’t want to dwell on the past, they admitted that the loss taught them some valuable lessons and served as a pivotal moment for the program.
Mullen said he didn’t think the coaches did a very good job of putting the players in the best situations to be successful in that game. The loss helped them learn more about how to use their players.
“I think we learned what guys did well and poorly at that point, and we had some guys out of position,” he said. “Some guys probably played more than they should, other guys not playing as much as they should in those ways. I think losing a game kind of motivated the guys in a different way of what we need to do and our sense of urgency and how hard it is to win. I think they took a lot out of it.”
Mullen had stressed the importance of giving maximum effort every second of every day and treating every opponent the same since the day he arrived at UF. For whatever reason, it didn’t seem to resonate with the players until the loss. That was their buy-in moment.
“I think it was an eye opener,” Franks said. “We should never take a team lightly no matter what people say about them or anything. You should never take a team lightly. There should be a standard at which you play at every game no matter who you are playing. If you’re playing below that standard, then that’s not right, and that’s not how we’re going to win.”
Just over a year ago, the Gators suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Kentucky that left many wondering which direction the program was headed under Mullen. On Saturday, they’ll get their shot at redemption and, more importantly, a chance to show just how far the program’s come since that gloomy night.