A victory in Gainesville would silence critics

Senior corner back Trevard Lindley runs the ball during the first half of UK

For UK, Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener against Florida gives the Cats more than just the opportunity to move to 4-0.

A win over the No. 9 Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) would jumpstart the Cats in conference play and continue the honeymoon period for UK head coach Joker Phillips. But most importantly, beating Florida would put the Cats on the map nationally.

“If you beat a top-10 team and you’re unranked, you’re going to get attention no matter who you are,” senior quarterback Mike Hartline said. “I know we’ve gotten some (attention) just because of our production on offense, but that doesn’t extend as far as a win. And we need to win against Florida, we need to beat SEC teams. If we don’t then we’re just the same program we used to be.”

Three years ago, UK beat then No. 9 ranked Louisville after blowing out two lesser opponents to open the season. That game catapulted UK into the national rankings and gave the program the kind of credibility and attention it hadn’t received for years.

Hartline said that beating Florida this weekend could have the same effect on the program. But because UK hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986 and because of the conference implications, this game could be even bigger than that matchup against Louisville.

“Louisville, not to say that they’re less of an opponent, but Florida has won national championships,” said senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed, a native of Florida. “This is what I signed to play in the SEC for. I didn’t come here to play Louisville. I came here to play these big SEC schools and get these wins.”

Sneed spent much of the last week rounding up any tickets from his teammates who won’t be using theirs during the game. He’s expecting 17 friends and family members to be at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday. Countless others will be watching on TV.

The game could mean much more to other individual players as well, even those without ties to the area. A solid performance by Hartline could give him leverage in a race against quarterbacks like Florida’s John Brantley, Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and Alabama’s Greg McElroy for All-SEC honors. A career day by junior wide receiver Randall Cobb could vault him into the Heisman discussion – another way for the program to get instant credibility and recognition.

“This is a huge game because if we can get those guys like that to play well, we’re going to win the game,” Sneed said. “If we can get our offense clicking like that and our defense steps up like the last game, it’s going to be a victory.”

Securing the victory means contending with a raucous crowd of over 90,000 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, better known as “The Swamp.” The Cats will be practicing with simulated crowd noise blared over loud speakers at the Nutter Training Facility, but Hartline said nothing can quite prepare players for the atmosphere on the road in the SEC.

Sneed said he tries to feed off the crowd noise and use it as motivation, but it still gets in the way as he tries to organize the defense from his middle linebacker position. Even defensive lineman right in front of him can have a hard time hearing his calls.

For Hartline, the most difficult part about dealing with the crowd is containing his emotions and focusing on the field. Those emotions will be running especially high with all the extra meaning the game has for UK.

“It’s big for everybody,” Hartline said. “Even for the guys that aren’t traveling. There’s some type of self-awareness for this program to kick off, especially with Coach Phillips as a new head coach and with how long we haven’t beaten them.”

If the Cats can overcome all that and find a way to beat Florida for the first time in 24 years, though, it will mean more than just a 4-0 start.

“It puts us on the map,” Hartline said. “It shows us that we still can win big games and we’re not just somebody that beat three teams at the beginning of the season.”