Wildcats look to vanquish first SEC opponent of the season in Gainesville


Jack Weaver

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis (7) warms up on the sideline during the Kentucky vs. Miami Ohio football game on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 37-13. Photo by Jack Weaver | Kentucky Kernel

Cole Parke, Sports Editor

Following a 37-13 victory in its season opener against Miami Ohio, Kentucky looks to compound the victory into a win streak heading into its first road game of the season.

The Wildcats are slated to travel to Gainesville, Florida, to duke it out with the newly No. 12 ranked Florida Gators in “The Swamp.”

While Kentucky may be fresh off a victory over the Gators in 2021, the Cats enter the game as a six-point underdog for a multitude of reasons.

First, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, also dubbed “The Swamp,” is regarded by some to be one of the toughest places in the SEC to play due to the hostile atmosphere created by home fans, not to mention the stadium having its nickname for a reason, with the heat and humidity of Gainesville creating a swamp-like atmosphere that many fail to adjust to.

Beyond that, while the Cats have been competitive and even conquered the Gators both at home and on the road in recent years, Florida went undefeated against the Wildcats in 31 consecutive games from 1987 until 2017 when UK finally broke the streak.

While some Kentucky fans may hope to let bygones be bygones and leave the past in the past, the fact of the matter is that Florida’s reign of dominance is not far removed from the present day, with Florida going undefeated against current Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops during the first five years of his tenure.

Finally, there’s how the teams matchup on paper.

Kentucky started the season ranked No. 20 in the preseason AP Poll, the first time since 1978 UK featured in a preseason poll, but after a less than convincing first half against the RedHawks in week one, the Cats remained stagnant in the rankings.

Florida, on the other hand, started the season unranked and surrounded by question marks. The Gators entered the year with a new head coach, new starting quarterback and a lack of usual big flashy recruits that usually put the Gators high in the preseason poll.

In a subversion of expectations, Florida quarterback Anthony Robinson put on a clinic in week one against No. 7 Utah, a preseason playoff hopeful, leading the Gators to a 29-26 win that saw UF skyrocket to No. 12 in the newest poll, leaping Kentucky.

Richardson, a dual threat QB, went 17-24 for 168 yards passing, but also amassed 106 rushing yards with three touchdowns.

With Kentucky featuring a “bend but don’t break” defensive style, the pressure will be on the defensive line to contain the mobile star, and linebackers such as Jacquez Jones will have to do their due diligence to not just defend the pass but prevent costly rushes as well, a feat not to be taken lightly.

While Florida is in a similar predicament with UK starting quarterback Will Levis also known to run with the ball, and having better passing numbers than Robinson, the Gator defense proved to at the very least be competent, holding a projected Pac-12 champion to just 26 points.

Kentucky also has question marks when it comes to its running back room, with what was seen as one of the Cats’ biggest strengths preseason turning into one of its biggest weaknesses.

Still facing his suspension, starting back Chris Rodriguez Jr. is confirmed to be out against Florida, which would be a big hit on its own that is only exacerbated by the injuries to both Jutahn McClain and Ramon Jefferson suffered in week one.

While McClain is listed as “week-to-week,” it would be foolish to gamble on building a game plan around an uncertainty, and Jefferson is confirmed to be out for the season with a torn ACL.

Kentucky does still have week one starter Kavosiey Smoke as well as rotation players like La’Vell Wright, the loss of Jefferson and potential loss of McClain is going to put additional weight on the shoulders of those available.

Florida, on the other hand, secured most of its offensive yards in week one on the ground, having more rushing yards than passing yards even with Robinson’s 106 subtracted.

The trio of Montrell Johnson Jr., Trevor Etienne and Nay’Quan Wright amassed a combined 27 carries for 178 yards, with Etienne in particular averaging 12.8 yards per carry.

While six points may not seem like a lot, Kentucky has its work cut out for it if it hopes to begin the season 2-0.

It’s far from impossible, and the Cats put forth a similar unimpressive opener, conveniently also against a MAC school, in 2017 before defeating Florida in Gainesville, but it is safe to say Florida has the advantage heading into Saturday.

If there’s one thing both Florida and Kentucky fans can agree upon, it’s that there’s no love lost between the two programs and that Saturday is going to be a battle.

Kentucky and Florida are scheduled to kickoff at 7 p.m. EST on Saturday, Sept. 10, inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. The matchup is slated to be aired live on ESPN.