No. 22 Florida looks to halt recent slide against unbeaten Kentucky in SEC East Division showdown

0
250

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Until recently, Florida’s only concern against Kentucky was how it would extend its decades-long winning streak rather than if.

The trend has shifted, and the No. 22 Gators face a different challenge in reversing a two-game slide against the unbeaten Wildcats after three losses in five meetings.

“It’s been addressed,” Florida quarterback Graham Mertz said this week.

Saturday’s sold-out showdown could determine which one emerges as the No. 2 team in the East Division behind top-ranked Georgia. The Gators (3-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) took a huge step toward that end with a 29-16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee two weeks ago that got them back into the rankings.

Kentucky (4-0, 1-0) won its SEC opener 45-28 at Vanderbilt last week but faces its first big test after cruising for the most part through the early schedule. The Wildcats are favored by 1 1/2 points, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, but go against the SEC’s stingiest defense (244.8 yards allowed per game) that’s also allowing the second-fewest points (13.5).

“They play like you would expect them to,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said of the Gators. “(And) that’s very sound and very aggressive and very tough. … It’s evident in the numbers that they’ve put up as well.”

Though the Wildcats have scored at least 35 points in three of four games, they remain a work in progress. Last week offered a hint as the Wildcats barely outgained the Commodores (365-328) and hurt themselves with drops, interceptions, red-zone breakdowns and 10 penalties for 105 yards.

Their defense also has issues but ranks fourth in the SEC (293.5 yards per game).

Florida also has room to grow offensively after settling for five field goals – four in the red zone — in last week’s 22-7 home win over Charlotte. The Gators’ upside was posting 11 explosive plays, which showed they can move the ball.

They will need more at Kentucky to reclaim some series momentum against the Wildcats. Not to mention, provide a big boost with three of the next four away from home.

Said Gators tight end Arlis Boardingham, “Every game that we play, the season’s on the line, so we know that this momentum – we’re coming out swinging — is going to be a huge, huge factor, especially being away.”

OPPORTUNISTIC HAIRSTON

Kentucky cornerback Maxwell Hairston made program history last week at Vanderbilt by returning two interceptions for touchdowns, the second for 54 yards. The sophomore matched a SEC single-game mark and is tied for the SEC lead with three pickoffs. He was honored this week as the conference’s top defender.

RETURN OF THE KING

Florida center Kingsley Eguakun (ankle) is expected to return to the starting lineup after missing two of the team’s first three games. Eguakun is a three-year starter who’s been instrumental in the Gators’ ground attack and helping steady the line on the road.

“Experience, there’s no value, no price tag you can put on it,” Florida coach Billy Napier said. “The guy’s ability, he’s comfortable, he’s been there, he’s a really good communicator, he’s got an edge about him that rubs off on the other guys. It will be a big deal.”

The Gators also will have dynamic freshman receiver Tre Wilson back after missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury. Wilson has 131 total yards on 14 touches.

TOUCHDOWN DAVIS

Kentucky running back Ray Davis continues his strong start since transferring from Vanderbilt by rushing for two TDs against his former school. His five rushing scores lead the SEC and he’s third in scoring with 42 points. The graduate stands fourth in SEC rushers with 314 yards and he’s currently eighth in active NCAA career rushing with 2,811.

KENTUCKY HOMECOMING

Florida defensive tackle Caleb Banks figures this game might be as close to a homecoming as he’s going to get. Banks grew up in Detroit and played sparingly as a freshman last season at Louisville before transferring to Florida, where he’s starting and making an impact.

Family and friends will be in attendance, including several on the opposite sideline in Hairston, defensive end Deone Walker and offensive tackle Jeremy Flax.

“I think it’s going to be like an All-Star Game,” Banks said. “Everybody from my school is going to be there. … We’re really good friends. It’s going to be a good game.”

QUOTABLE

Asked if the noon kickoff would affect the home crowd’s impact, Stoops offered this:

“I have great confidence in the people of Kentucky that can get up very early and pound some beers,” he said to laughter from the media. “Why would you disrespect this great state and the great people of it?”

___

AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this report.

___

AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll