Death. Taxes. Kentucky losing to Florida in football. As the sun rises in the East each day, so has gone the Kentucky football series with Florida since before I had a driver's license (I'm 42). The pundits all have to have their takes and a vocal minority has the Cats pulling a big surprise out of their collective hat today. Despite 26 years of futility, the theory is now without foundation.
Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy, despite being a redshirt junior, will be making his starting debut in Lexington this evening. The man he replaces, Jeff Driskel, wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire to begin with. Florida looked brutal in the first half of last week's game against the Tennessee Volunteers, then seemed to settle down behind Murphy. Still, anyone who saw the game knows that Florida looked vulnerable, and won by two touchdowns only because Tennessee was positively abysmal. Seriously, it may have been the worst 3:30 CBS game in SEC history.
Kentucky looked improved against Louisville two weeks ago, despite a lack of rhythm on offensive, its play characterized by turnovers and drops. The Cats are coming off a crucial bye week, and are hoping that Maxwell Smith's ailing right shoulder is healed enough for him to answer the bell. We saw glimpses of the vaunted defense that Mark Stoops promised, with Kentucky seemingly flummoxing Teddy Bridgewater (for my money, the nation's second best quarterback) in the first half. Defensively, Kentucky seems to have all hands on deck (or at least all the hands this year's team will have), and has the puzzle put together in terms of personnel.
In my mind, a win today is still a tall order. Despite the step back since Urban Meyer left the helm, Florida's defense is as good as ever. Though Murphy has a dearth of experience, and the Gator offense has been anemic at times, the Gators probably don't have to light up the scoreboard to win. Still, as hope springs eternal, here's a look at five factors that could help Kentucky pull this one off.
1. Win the turnover battle. Kentucky needs to be at a +2 today to make up for what will surely be some stagnant offensive stretches.
2. Jojo Kemp. WIth apologies all around, true freshman Jojo Kemp is an electrifying runner who is likely Kentucky's best pure running back since Derrick Locke. He's will need to hit a home run or two today if Kentucky is going to put a sufficient number of points on the board. The Cats won't be passing over the Gator secondary, and I don't see any other backs being in a position to put a huge play on the board.
3. Schematic advantages. You may remember Florida manhandling the Cats in the Swamp in 2010 by a score of 48-14. Or maybe all the manhandlings all run together, in which case I'll remind you. This is the game where Trey Burton carried 5 times out of the Wildcat and (while running the exact same play each time, mind you) scored on all 5. If Kentucky is outcoached like that tonight, the party will be over real quick. Stoops and Co. have shown the ability to adapt. Throwing five down linemen at Louisville two weeks ago was a masterstroke that kept the game much closer than it should have been. If the Cats win tonight, it will be in part because they gave the Gators something they weren't prepared for rather than the other way around.
4. The crowd. Commonwealth is never going to be confused with Death Valley, but when fans are properly motivated, it shouldn't be an easy place to play. Murphy played well in relief of Driskel last week, but he was at home. He has not thrown a pass in a visiting stadium in his entire career. HE IS A JUNIOR WHO HASN'T EVEN LETTERED YET. Make no mistake, Will Muschamp is losing sleep over this. This is a monumental task for Murphy, and if the fans aren't as disruptive as humanly possible, then we've really let down our team.
5. Tempo. Adaptation will also be key for Neal Brown's offense. As much as I love the Air Raid, Kentucky will need to slow its roll today. If this game is to be won, it will likely be played in the teens or low twenties. Turning this into a track meet will play into Florida's hands. It's a depth issue, as well as what should be an implicit recognition that no matter how fast Kentucky plays, points will be at a premium against Florida's defense.