LEXINGTON, Ky. — The dominant storyline for so many years in the Florida-Kentucky rivalry has revolved around “the streak.”
The Gators have won 26 consecutive games over the Wildcats and with a victory Saturday, Florida can set an SEC record for longest win streak against a conference opponent. The Gators share the record currently with Tennessee, which defeated Kentucky 26 consecutive times until the Wildcats snapped their futility against the Vols in 2011.
That is a storyline the Gators want to avoid at Commonwealth Stadium in their SEC road opener.
“Twenty-six is a lot,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who went 12-0 against Kentucky in his time as Florida’s coach. “I think I would rather be on the winning side of that streak than the losing.”
While Florida coach Will Muschamp prefers to downplay any talk of the Gators’ remarkable win streak over the Wildcats, he would probably welcome that topic as the primary storyline after what transpired in the past week.
The Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season due to a lower leg injury in last weekend’s win over Tennessee, and then on Tuesday, starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley suffered a season-ending knee injury at practice.
Less than a month into the season and the Gators have lost two of their most important players.
How the Gators adjust to the losses will determine what kind of season they have.
Let’s take a look at the Gators-Wildcats matchup with The Opening Kickoff:
Five storylines to watch
— Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy will make his first career start. The redshirt junior had not thrown a pass in his college career until replacing Driskel midway in the first quarter of Florida’s 31-17 win over Tennessee. Murphy finished 8 of 14 for 134 yards and rushed for 84 yards. Overall, not a bad debut for a player who watched five UF quarterbacks take snaps the past three years before he finally got his opportunity.
— The loss of Easley is one that will be difficult for the Gators to overcome. The senior leader was playing perhaps the best football of his career and was a strong All-American candidate. The Gators have recruited well on defense under Muschamp, so he and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will look for production from those top recruits they have brought in the past three years.
— First-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, like Muschamp, climbed his way up the coaching ladder as a defensive coordinator. Stoops spent the last three years as Florida State’s defensive coordinator and he is familiar with Florida’s offense. This is the SEC opener for the Wildcats expect more of a buzz at Commonwealth Stadium than usual.
— Getting off to a good start is always important, but perhaps more so than usual in this one for the Gators. They have a new quarterback making his first career start on the road, and they are dealing with the emotional toll of losing two key players in a span of a few days. Falling behind early is not the best recipe for success considering the circumstances.
— The game marks the return of Joker Phillips to Kentucky, where he was head coach the past three seasons and has spent the majority of his coaching career. Phillips is now Florida’s receivers coach and his familiarity with the Wildcats’ personnel was an added bonus for Florida in preparing for the game.
Cast of characters
— Gators junior defensive tackle Darious Cummings had the highlight moment of his young Florida career with a 30-yard interception return against Tennessee. Cummings started his career at Florida State, transferred to East Mississippi Community College, and then to Florida. He moves up the depth chart following Easley’s injury and could provide the Gators a huge boost by playing well.
— All eyes will be on Murphy in his first start. Murphy aced his role by coming off the bench and saving the day against Tennessee. Florida isn’t expected to make wholesale changes on offense with Murphy in charge. Instead, look for him to try and make plays on the run and rely on the running game to set up opportunities in the passing game, much like the Gators did with Driskel.
— Florida receiver Solomon Patton took a short pass from Murphy and turned the play into a 52-yard touchdown in last week’s win, putting Florida at ease following Driskel’s injury. Patton has shown vast improvement through three games and has emerged as the early season playmaker the Gators need.
— Kentucky freshman running back Jojo Kemp entered the season third on the depth chart behind seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George. However, through three games, Kemp is averaging 9.3 yards per carry to give the Wildcats another threat in the backfield.
— The Gators’ offensive line has not been at full strength due to various nagging injuries. Starting right guard Jon Halapio returned to the lineup last week after missing fall camp and the first two games due to a torn pectoral muscle. Halapio then had to leave the game with an eye injury. He later returned, but if Halapio can get closer to full speed that would provide a much-needed boost to Florida’s run game.
The quote file
“Our specialists need to get better. We’re not very productive at the punter position right now or at placekicker. We didn’t really affect the game as far as special teams are concerned like we have in our previous time.” — Muschamp on the kicking game
“It’s not an issue for us when someone goes down. It just shows how much depth we have and how we can count on each other to step up when someone goes down.” — Defensive back Jaylen Watkins on Florida’s secondary depth
“Kind of the guys that I looked up to growing up. They went to the same high school, so I always had tickets to go and I stayed down there a lot.” — Kentucky running back Kemp, who grew up in Deland and is good friends with former Gators Mike Gillislee and Pop Saunders
10 quick hitters
— Freshman wide receiver Demarcus Robinson is expected to return to the lineup for the Gators. Robinson was out last week due to a violation of team rules. Gators defensive back Brian Poole is suspended for the first half due to his targeting penalty against Tennessee.
— Muschamp put starting punter Kyle Christy and kicker Austin Hardin on alert this week, saying both spots were open for competition with the kicking game struggling through three games.
— Florida’s defense is prepared for Kentucky’s quarterback tandem of Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow. Smith is more of the traditional pocket passer while Whitlow is more of a dual-threat quarterback.
— Gators cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, listed on several All-American lists prior to the season, has been quiet other than for his blocked punt at Miami. Purifoy left the Tennessee game with a thigh contusion but Durkin said he looked fine at practice and is expected to play.
— Wildcats junior-college transfer Za’Darius Smith is off to a fast start. Smith has 4.5 sacks in Kentucky’s first three games, which places him among the national leaders.
— Florida’s 26-game win streak over Kentucky is the nation’s current longest between two major FBS opponents in an uninterrupted series. The all-time record is Notre Dame’s 43-game win streak over Navy from 1964-2006.
— The Gators lead the SEC in scoring defense (14.7 points per game), total defense (212.3 yards per game), run defense (55.3 ypg) and pass defense (157 ypg).
— This is the fifth consecutive season Kentucky faces Florida in its SEC opener. The Wildcats are being tested early, with four consecutive games against teams currently ranked in the Top 25: Louisville (lost, 27-13), Florida, South Carolina and Alabama.
— The Gators forced six turnovers against Tennessee, the most they have caused in an SEC game since Tennessee turned it over six times in a 35-29 loss to the Gators in 1996.
— Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease spent two seasons at Kentucky as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2001-02. In 2002, Florida escaped with a 41-34 home win, one of the closer games during Florida’s 26-game win streak over the Wildcats.
The bottom line
This has the feel of a perilous game for the Gators with a new quarterback and without one of the team’s most talented players.
Expect Murphy to place a huge emphasis on protecting the ball and relying on the Gators’ SEC-leading defense as much as possible.
Despite a turbulent week for the Gators, they are the more talented team and should be able to run the ball against the Wildcats. That could be the difference in what many expect to be a low-scoring game.