By Eric Ploch
The Kentucky Wildcats play host to the Florida Gators in a crucial SEC Eastern Division matchup on Saturday night from Kroger Field. The Gators come in 3-1 but remain one of the most impressive teams in the SEC after hanging close with Alabama just a few weeks ago. For Kentucky, it has been one of their best starts in recent history, sitting at 4-0 coming into one of the biggest home games in their program’s history. In the preseason SEC poll, the Gators were picked to finish second in the division, and Kentucky was picked to finish third. Both teams come in ranked as well and while Florida will be heavy favorites to stay undefeated within the division, Kentucky’s home-field advantage could be a factor. Florida won by 24 points in last year’s meeting and has historically dominated the Wildcats. All it takes is one game though for history to change and Kentucky will want to prove that they’re a serious contender towards the typical top dogs within their division.
Gators Look To Continue Dominance
The Gators gained quite a bit of national respect with their ability to hang close to Alabama but it also isn’t a great sign when their most notable success this year is actually from a loss. They took down Tennessee at home last weekend and also have wins against USF and FAU. Going on the road in the SEC is always a problem though and given some of the question marks that Florida is still working through, this might be a more difficult game than Gator fans will be expecting. This will be Florida’s first true road game of the season, considering USF plays where the Buccaneers play, and that could mean a slow start. All eyes continue to be on quarterback Anthony Richardson (hamstring), as his ability to step in as a change of pace runner was useful in the first two weeks. Cornerback Kaiir Elam (undisclosed) is probable to go and that’ll be useful for a defense looking for experience on the road. The Gators should be expected to win but it might not be pretty nor easy early on.
Florida’s offense has been consistent but far from overwhelming for opponents on the season. They rank only 34th in points per game nationally but have been efficient with their play calling. They rank ninth in FBS in total yards per game and they have a heavy focus on running the ball, ranking third in rushing yards per game. Richardson is second on the team in rushing yards, despite missing two games and whoever plays at quarterback should be able to keep the engine running. Emory Jones will be the starter regardless of Richardson’s status but needs to improve as a passer. He’s only averaging 167 passing yards per game, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. The turnovers are what the Gators need to keep an eye on limiting against Kentucky. Five different Gators have rushing touchdowns this year and it can be expected that they’ll have an emphasis on forcing the ground game to lead the way on Saturday.
Defensively, the Gators rank 44th nationally in points allowed per game but given Kentucky’s struggles, they shouldn’t expect to get stuck in a shootout. Florida’s key is getting after the quarterback, ranking 11th in sacks per game, and putting heavy pressure on Kentucky is a good way to control the game. Florida only ranks 108th nationally in interceptions per game the fumbles forced aren’t much different, and winning the turnover battle is key to any SEC road win. Trey Dean III and Mohamoud Diabate are the co-leaders on the team with 26 tackles and both will be flying around the field on Saturday. Kentucky is yet to see the team speed that Florida exhibits and that jump in talent and athleticism will give the Gators the leg up on Saturday against the Wildcats.
Wildcats Aim To Prove They Belong
Kentucky has had a really interesting season thus far and while they haven’t dominated many opponents, all that matters is the result at the end of the day. Their last three games have all been decided by fewer than ten points, taking down South Carolina by six, Tennessee Chatanooga by five, and Missouri by seven. Their schedule has seemed to be difficult and while Kentucky does sit at 4-0, it seems uncertain how legit they are as a potential threat in the SEC East. Being at home will be helpful but given Kentucky’s struggles against Florida over the last 40 years, there remains a mental hurdle for them to overcome as little brother. There are a few injuries of concern but there’s no one questionable. That helps Kentucky, as there won’t be any questions as to who may or may not be available for their game plan on Saturday.
Kentucky has taken big steps forward this series son the offense after having quality on the defensive side the last few years, but not much help on the offensive side. They’re averaging 31 points per game and Penn State-transfer, Will Levis has been the spark that they need. In four games, he has seven touchdowns and is averaging over 200 passing yards a game but needs to limit the turnovers, with five interceptions already. The offense relies heavily on Christopher Rodriguez Jr., as he averages 130.50 rushing yards per game and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He has the ability to take a toll on Florida’s defense and if he can keep churning first downs, it’ll only help the Wildcats win the possession. Wan’Dale Robinson is averaging over 100 receiving yards per game and between those two and Levs’ dual-threat ability, this is an offense that teams aren’t accustomed to seeing out of Kentucky squads.
Defensively, Kentucky ranks 28th in FBS in points allowed per game and they’ve been a stout second-half defense. They aren’t great in any one aspect, averaging only 2.25 sacks per game and ranking 83rd nationally in interceptions per game, but have the depth and athletes to compete with the top dogs in the SEC. With Florida’s heavy emphasis on the ground game, they could be in trouble against Kentucky, who are only allowing 87.50 rushing yards per game to opponents. Jacquez Jones has been a leader on the defensive side, tied for the team lead in tackles with 24, adding in an interception and three back breakups. J.J. Weaver has 3.5 sacks and those two will have their names called plenty if Kentucky is able to stay close. Expect the Wildcats to be flying around early and if they can withstand Florida’s ground game and force them to throw, they’ll have a good chance at being right in the thick of things in the fourth quarter.
Florida has dominated Kentucky historically but recent meetings have seen Kentucky at least staying close. In the last four matchups, Kentucky has covered. While last year, they did lose by 24 still, that makeup of Florida’s offense wasn’t a great matchup, while this year’s style fits more into how Kentucky wants the game played. Kentucky has one of the nation’s best rushing offenses and a heavy dose of Rodriguez Jr. could mean Kentucky controlling the possession game, which will be crucial. The issue though is that Florida might look to key in on the running game, only to get exposed by the Levis and Robinson connection, which has gone for 100 yards per game through the air. Florida still has question marks at quarterback and while both have the ability to be game-changers, the lingering uncertainty about who will lead the team can’t be good for the offense. Jones has continued to lose the turnover battle and he can’t afford to have that be the case on the road. The biggest key is that Kentucky has an elite rush defense and with Florida really only finding success on the ground this year, they might have trouble moving the ball consistently. While pulling the outright upset seems like a tough ask, Kentucky will be energized and ready to go as the home team, and has a matchup that plays into some of their strengths. Expect a cover with the chance that Kentucky wins this one
Prediction: Kentucky (+8.5)
Written By Eric Ploch , “Eric P.”
Eric grew up surrounded by sports, whether it was spending the weekend catching games in person or on tv, or heading out to the fields to play whatever sport was in season. What started as a hobby, soon became a passion, as he became the sports editor of his high school newspaper, then wrote for his university newspaper during his undergrad years. After obtaining a degree in Sports Operations and Promotions, and spending 8 years deeply immersed in the sports world, Eric decided to take his love for analytics and predictions, and his experience, to online sports fans everywhere. James is now an integral part of our team here at StatSalt and has also been a very successful sports bettor over the years. Be sure and follow him daily.