Florida Football Friday Final: Gators get healthy, remain extremely rare underdog against Kentucky

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 29, 2023
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators get healthy, remain extremely rare underdog against Kentucky

Image Credit: UAA

The Florida Gators have dominated the Kentucky Wildcats on the gridiron across the history of both programs. It just has not been the case recently. Once Florida’s 31-game winning streak over Kentucky was snapped — the Gators had actually won 39 of 40 from 1980 to 2020 — four decades of utter dominance crumbled.

While Florida has struggled with consistency both on the field and on the sideline, Kentucky has been the model of it under head coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats have posted a pair of 17-9 two-year stretches over the last handful of seasons, and that success has come with consecutive wins over the Gators in 2021-22, the first time that’s happened in the series since 1976-77.

No. 22 Florida enters this week’s road game as a 1-point underdog to Kentucky. It’s an exceedingly rare datapoint.

This will be the 57th road game the Gators have played as a ranked team against an unranked opponent since the start of the 1995 season … and the first time they will enter as underdogs. Florida holds a 47-9 record in those prior 56 games, though it’s 0-2 since 2021 with losses to Kentucky and LSU that year.

If the Gators fall to 0-3, it will mark the Wildcats’ first three-game winning streak in this longtime SEC East rivalry since Bear Bryant was Kentucky’s coach (1948-51).

Florida head coach Billy Napier, who went winless against traditional rivals in 2022, is 1-0 in such games this season following UF’s explosive win over Tennessee. Napier knows

Florida is not facing the Kentucky of old this week, saying Monday that the Gators respect the Wildcats as a program and are aware of how they’ve dominated the series the last two years. He praised Kentucky’s skill players, called NC State transfer quarterback Devin Leary “fantastic” and believes Stoops developing an identity for the defense is why UK has seen more success of late.

Still, the Gators’ problems with the ‘Cats go beyond the last two seasons. Florida has not had a decisive win at Kentucky since 2013. It won an exhausting 14-9 decision in 2015, barely came back to win 28-27 in 2017, scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to win 29-21 in 2019 and then lost in Lexington, Kentucky, for the first time since 1986 after getting edged 20-13 in 2021.

A sleepy noon ET road kickoff will not do the Gators any favors, either, though Napier said Florida spent the entire offseason varying its practices and pregame preparation work so that game time did not matter.

“I like to win. I don’t care what time the game is. I like to win,” he said Monday.

Cleaning up

Even though the Gators are clearly improved overall from a year ago, there remain issues in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. Napier addressed some of those problems on Monday while evaluating the Charlotte game.

  • The red zone issues were the result of mental errors as well as players not playing with proper fundamentals and techniques. However, there were at least two play design problems, which the coaches are fixing.
  • While turnovers are not predictable, Florida must figure out how to create more of them, and it has been made a point of emphasis in practice. However … “We’ve done a better job playing the normal downs better. We’ve done a good job getting off the field on third down. And when we do get in the red zone, we do pretty good down there.”
  • Despite special teams penalties and instances with only 10 men on the field, the unit took a step in the right direction with the specialists (kickers, punters). There is a recognized need to eliminate communication and game-day operation errors made by the coaching staff.

Good for Graham

Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz may not be setting the world on fire with his play, but he’s doing exactly what Napier is asking. Namely, he’s playing efficiently, taking care of the ball and avoiding back-breaking mistakes. Mertz’s completion percentage (.778) is not just tops for his career but 16.7% better than his best year as a starter. While he’s only on pace for 12 touchdowns, he’s pacing for three interceptions, the fewest of his career.

Perhaps Mertz’s biggest issue is keeping his jersey clean. He had a penchant for taking sacks at Wisconsin — the Badgers offense certainly did not help him — that appears to be continuing at Florida. In fact, he’s on pace for 27 sacks, which would be a career-high by four. No quarterback should be getting hit that many times, though early season injuries and suspensions have hit the Gators offensive line particularly hard.

“Graham has made our team better,” Napier said. “… This guy has done a really good job for our team. He’s playing at a high level. We need to keep him cleaner. The ball is going where it’s supposed to go. … He’s playing really efficient for us right now.”

Mertz praised Napier this week for getting him in the flow when games begin, noting that by not forcing the ball down the field as much as he has earlier in his career, he’s able to make higher-percentage throws while limiting turnovers.

Notes & quotes

  • Practice was “a little bit better” than last week with players responding the right way on Wednesday.
  • Explosive plays and the Gators’ ability to limit them will decide the game.
  • Offensive linemen redshirt junior Kingsley Eguakun (injury) and junior Micah Mazzccua (suspension) are back as starters this week.
  • Also healthy is freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III. Napier: “Our players know. DBs know. Everybody knows. The guy’s a unique player. He has unique acceleration, he has unique instincts, vision, ball skills, hand selection, run after catch. [The moment is] not too big for him. It’s always good when he’s healthy.”
  • Redshirt junior cornerback Jalen Kimber continues to have a great year. Napier pointed out that he had his first full offseason and has made a huge jump in Year 2 at Florida.
  • Napier is thrilled with the starting linebackers as well as the work by position coach Jay Bateman. He praised redshirt sophomore Scooby Williams for playing through injuries, sophomore Shemar James for developing and stepping up as a communicator, and redshirt junior Mannie Nunnery for contributing speed to the most competitive unit on the team.

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