Cats ready for their first real challenge

Florida junior tight end Aaron Hernandez is tackled by a UK player during the first half of the game played at Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 26, 2009. Florida beat UK 41-7. Photo by Zach BrakeStaff (Zach Brake)

A quarter of the way into the Cats’ schedule, and they have yet to experience the underdog role. Until now.

UK (3-0) heads to Gainesville, Fla., this Saturday to open its Southeastern Conference schedule against the No. 9 Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC). The UK coaching staff and players believe the game should act as a litmus test for how good UK really is and, therefore, how good it can be.

“We’re going against a top-10 team in Florida, a team that’s beaten us the past 20-plus years,” senior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said. “This is going to be a good testament to see what this team’s about. We’re going down there at 7 o’clock at night, at The Swamp, so it’s going to be hostile, and we’re going to see if we can still run the ball and how good our defense really is … it’s time to start the real season now in the SEC.”

The history of this series has been unkind to UK. The Gators haven’t lost to the Cats since 1986, and the last time they fell to UK at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was 1979.

Despite both teams’ identical unbeaten records, the Cats’ nonconference opponents have been labeled as lower profile games and they’ve yet to receive votes in either the AP or coaches’ poll.

Senior tailback Derrick Locke said the perceived slight at UK is something that will continue to exist until UK starts knocking off more-skilled opponents like the Gators.

“We’re Kentucky, so it’s going to be like that until we start beating quality opponents,” Locke said. “Even if we do beat some, it doesn’t matter, we’ve got to beat the teams we haven’t beat, and then we’ll get respect.”

Florida was picked to win the SEC East division in the preseason, but this year’s edition of the Gators have been criticized by the media for not being as dominant as the Tim Tebow-led Gators that routed UK 41-7 last season and 63-5 in 2008 — a game in which current Cats quarterback Mike Hartline was yanked in favor of Randall Cobb.

UK head coach Joker Phillips said he believes Hartline is a different player from two years ago.

“He’s been through it, you know, he understands going down into The Swamp, and it’s pretty tough,” Phillips said. “He’s been on the road in all the SEC stadiums, so this should be real helpful for him.”

However, the play of Hartline won’t matter if UK starts slowly in the first quarter like it has recently versus Florida. In the past two meetings, the Gators have outscored the Cats 59-0 in the first quarter and have recorded three first-quarter blocked punts, all but assuring the outcomes of both games.

“I feel like if we don’t get punts blocked and all that weird stuff, we can go toe-to-toe with these guys,” Locke said.

Phillips said the turnover battle will be a “great matchup” in this game, and it could be the real saving grace for the Cats. UK is one of two teams — Oregon State is the other — in Division I to have no turnovers so far. Conversely, Florida is tied for first in the nation with 12 turnovers forced.

Still, the early-season success of UK has to be put aside, Phillips said, if the Cats want to continue achieving their season goals.

“Every time we get on the bus, we talk about it being a business trip. It’s not a slumber party,” Phillips said. “We’re here for business, and our business is to win the East, simple as that. And if you want to win the East, you’ve got to go about this season business only. That’s the attitude that we’re taking.”

Injury report and game captains

Senior fullback Moncell Allen (hamstring) and junior offensive tackle Stuart Hines (ankle) are both doubtful for Saturday’s game against Florida.

Despite his injury, Allen will serve as a game captain, along with junior linebacker and Leesburg, Fla., native Danny Trevathan.

Junior safety Taiedo Smith is questionable, while senior defensive end DeQuin Evans, freshman linebacker Avery Williamson and Locke are listed as day-to-day.