Conference play is finally here for the No. 9 Florida Gators (2-0), which means it’s the start of a whole new season. The Gators start their SEC grind against the Kentucky Wildcats (2-0) as they travel to Lexington for a night cap in Kroger Field.
Coming off a disappointing loss to Kentucky last year, that ended Florida’s streak of 31-straight wins over the Cats, the Gators are looking for revenge.
A primetime game in Kroger is nothing to scoff at, especially with this being the Gators first test on the road this young season. The Wildcats will be fired up for another opportunity to upset the Gators, this time on their home turf. With the pressure on them to wash the taste out of their mouths from last season’s loss, the Gators need to turn in their best effort of the season.
Here are the five Gators on the spot this week should they leave Lexington with an important conference win:
- David Reese, Linebacker
When the team’s met last year, Kentucky gashed Florida on the ground, rushing for 303 yards. A big part of that was the absence of David Reese manning the middle of the Gators’ defense. Reese may not be the fastest, but he’s no doubt Florida’s best run-stopper and will be needed this time against the Wildcats. Kentucky is a run-heavy team with a stable of backs to choose from. The Gators need to stop the run and make quarterback Sawyer Smith beat them with his arm. Reese figures to be a key clog in the Gators rush defense as they look to slow down Kentucky’s ground attack.
- Nick Buchanan, Offensive Lineman
The center is widely regarded as the most important position along the offensive line and Gators offensive line coach John Hevesy said that Nick Buchanan is ‘his quarterback’. Buchanan will be critical for the Gators success Saturday as he’s tasked with setting the Gators up-front against a strong Kentucky front-seven. Florida has struggled to get the run-game going to start the year and it won’t come easy Saturday. The Gators offensive line will have to be sharp on all fronts against the Wildcats, but in particular, need to open up some running lanes. With Buchanan in charge of the line, the responsibility to get the ground game going is on his shoulders.
- Van Jefferson, Wide Receiver
One of Kentucky’s glaring weaknesses through two weeks of the season has been their secondary play. Toledo and Eastern Michigan were able to throw the ball all over the Wildcats defense this year and you can expect Florida to try to do the same. The Gators may look to spread the ball around through the air like last week, or focus the passing game on one or two options. Either way, one of those options will be Van Jefferson. The senior hauled in a 69-yard touchdown reception last week and looks more than capable of having the passing game flow through him. Jefferson is a veteran within the conference and may arguably be the Gators best route-runner. Look for him to have a big game kicking off the conference season.
- Cornerback opposite of Marco Wilson
With starting cornerback CJ Henderson doubtful for Saturday’s game, whoever takes his side of the field will be critical to the Gators success. Marco Wilson will have one side of the field locked down, so you can imagine the Wildcats will test whoever is on the other side. The real question, one we won’t have a real answer until game time, is how the Gators fill that void. Do they rely upon the trio of freshman corners (Kaiir Elam, Jaydon Hill and Chester Kimbrough), or do they move Trey Dean out wide and put Amari Burney at the STAR? Either way, filling Henderson’s void will be key to Florida leaving Kentucky with the win.
- Feleipe Franks, Quarterback
With the Gators having their first true road game of the year, the spotlight will once again be on Feleipe Franks to perform. The redshirt junior returns to Kroger Field, the place where he made his first true road start as a Gator in 2017. He will hope for better fortunes this time around, as Franks was benched and watched Luke Del Rio lead Florida to victory. Last year in The Swamp, he wasn’t his best, going 17-for-38, for 232 yards with two scores and an interception. Plain and simple, Franks has struggled against Mark Stoops defenses. However, this matchup provides the best chances for Franks to do some damage with his arm and test the Wildcats secondary. Through two games, Kentucky is allowing 251.5 yards through the air. Coming off a game where he threw just two incompletions, Franks should be feeling good about throwing the ball around the yard once again.