Kentucky Wildcats at Florida Gators game preview

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Stories on The Streak during the week the Gators and Kentucky play in football are nearly as prominent as those Black Friday advertisements you see on TV the day after Thanksgiving.

They are as much a part of this rivalry as Kentucky bourbon and Florida sunshine.

"It’s there," Florida coach Jim McElwain said of the elephant on the field. "It’s something to write about."

The first few years of the streak Florida’s dominance of Kentucky was a footnote, expected by media and fans. And then it continued to grow and grow and grow.

The Gators have beaten the Wildcats 29 consecutive times. That’s just crazy.

"The past 30 years have nothing to do with us and this team," Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said. "Really not concerned with it at all."

Since Stoops took over the Kentucky program in 2013, the games have been closer. Florida won 24-7 three years ago, 36-33 in triple-overtime two years ago, and 14-9 in Lexington a year ago in McElwain’s first season.

Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis likes to watch football when he’s not playing football. When he was younger, Davis often changed the channel if he came across a Kentucky game.

Not so much anymore.

"They have a lot of athletes. These past couple of years they’ve really been showing up," Davis said. "When you used to watch a Kentucky game you didn’t want to watch it that much. Now they’re really exciting to watch. They’re one of the teams I like to watch play because they have so many explosive players on offense and do a pretty good job on defense."

Of course, on Saturday afternoon Davis plans to greet those explosive players like a hammer does a nail and hopes to head for home knowing the Gators never lost to the Wildcats in his career.

Kentucky opened the season a week ago against Southern Miss resembling a fast-break version John Calipari’s Wildcats. And then the second half happened. A 25-point lead vanished and Southern Miss won 44-35.

Stoops and the Wildcats got asked a lot about that collapse this week. Maybe even as much as The Streak.

For more on the Florida-Kentucky game, here is The Opening Kickoff:

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THREE QUESTIONS WITH … GATORS DEFENSIVE-LINE COACH CHRIS RUMPH

Q: What is the ideal number of players you would like to have in your rotation up front?

A: If we can get 10 guys and roll them pretty good to keep guys fresh. Those guys got one tank. There ain’t no second wind with those guys. It’s one tank, and once it’s empty, it’s empty.

Q: How did redshirt junior defensive end Jordan Sherit (four tackles) play in the opener?

A: I tell all the younger guys in the room, all the defensive ends, I say if you want to see how it’s done, if you want to become really good, then study Jordan Sherit. He’s that guy. If you look at him, he’s not the flashiest. His name doesn’t come up when you talk about the guys on the cover of the magazines. This guy just continues to make plays. He’s a typical blue-collar guy. He gets it.

Q: What is your emphasis in recruiting here at UF when building the defensive line?

A: We’ve got to get bigger. We’ve got to definitely get bigger. Sometimes when you get big, you give up some of your athletic ability. I want both of them. My goal is to come to work in flip-flops and sipping on lemonade. Until I get those guys where I can come to work in flip-flops and show up at 3:30 [for practice], I’m trying to change the room. I want to build my room not only for the SEC, I want to build it for the national championship.

THREE STORYLINES

— It’s a timeworn storyline that is several years older than any of the players. Still, when Florida and Kentucky play, there is no way to avoid the Gators’ 29-game win streak over the Wildcats. It hangs over this series like Spanish moss hangs off those old oaks around UF’s campus.

— The Gators won their opener against UMass but seemed less than thrilled with their overall performance. They talked this week about cleaning up some of the issues that hampered them, mostly penalties and lackluster energy from the offensive line.

— This is a big game for both teams, but in the grand scheme of things, it might mean the most to Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. While Stoops has improved the program, an 0-2 start in his fourth season probably won’t sit well with Big Blue Nation.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

— Gators junior cornerback Teez Tabor returns from a one-game suspension. He was missed in the opener after Duke Dawson left the game in the first half with an injury. Tabor’s presence will be welcomed against a Kentucky passing attack that features receivers Ryan Timmons and Garrett Johnson.

— UF freshman receiver Tyrie Cleveland is eligible to play after serving a one-game suspension for his involvement in a BB gun incident along with fellow freshman receiver Rick Wells. Cleveland was hampered by a hamstring injury during camp, but if he is healthy and has his number called Saturday, one of the nation’s top receiving prospects will have the Wildcats’ attention.

— Wildcats junior running back Boom Williams rushed 16 times for 80 yards against Florida last season and opened the season with a 94-yard performance in the loss to Southern Miss. Williams has worked on a more straight-ahead running style which helped him average more than seven yards per carry in the opener.

THE QUOTE FILE

— "That was the quickest reel to ever watch in the history of ball. When you are going through that, now wait a minute? Where’s the rest of it?" — Gators coach Jim McElwain on reviewing second half of Kentucky-Southern Miss game when Wildcats ran just 14 plays to 53 for Golden Eagles

— "I thought we did a good job keeping the tempo up and pushing the pace of the game, not letting the defense dictate to us. We just need to finish in the end zone." — Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio on the offense in his first start

— "When you talk about the different pieces of the puzzle, a lot of that is finding out what player does what the best. Some guys are better inside zone runners than outside zone runners and vice versa. So what we try to do is play those guys in situations and put them in the best chance for success." — Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier on use of multiple running backs

— "We’re going to have a lot more exciting plays. I think a lot of guys are going to be able to really let their guard down and go play now. We’re locked tight back there and it’s going to be really exciting to see what goes down when he’s there." — UF linebacker Jarrad Davis on having Tabor back in lineup

— "They’re doing something right. You know, normal Florida." — Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran on Florida’s defense

INJURY REPORT

OUT: WR Dre Massey (knee, out for season), OL Antonio Riles (knee, out for season), DB C.J. McWilliams (knee, out for season); WR Kalif Jackson (knee), DB Quincy Lenton (foot); PROBABLE: WR C.J. Worton (ankle), DB Duke Dawson (shoulder), LB Daniel McMillian (ankle).

UNCLE VERNE IN HOUSE

You always know it’s a big game when you see the CBS Sports college football bus parked outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Thursday of game week. That was the case this week. The CBS broadcast team of Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson and Allie LaForce is in town to call the Gators-Wildcats game on Saturday.

As usual, there was Uncle Verne looking back at you from the side of the bus. Lundquist is retiring from the CBS football booth at the conclusion of the 2016 season and there is no guarantee he will be back at the Swamp this season. Let’s hope there is another trip later in the season.

10 QUICK HITTERS

— The UF receiving duo of Antonio Callaway (8-72) and Brandon Powell (7-73) was one of just four to each have seven receptions and 70 or more yards in Week 1. South Alabama, Syracuse and East Carolina also had duos accomplish the feat.

— Florida won its 27th consecutive season opener with the victory over UMass and improved to 11-4 under head coach Jim McElwain.

— The Gators made just one field goal from 40 yards or longer in 2015. It took newcomer Eddy Pineiro three kicks to triple that number as Pineiro connected from 40, 49 and 48 yards in his debut.

— The Gators are looking to score 30 or more points for the first time since last season’s win over Ole Miss. The 10-game streak marks program’s longest since a 10-game stretch over the 1988-89 seasons. Florida is 6-4 during the current streak. On the flip side, Florida has allowed 30 or more points just twice in 15 games under McElwain (LSU, Michigan).

— Florida owns a 40-4 record in September games since the start of the 2005 season and seeks to win its SEC opener for the 12th consecutive season.

— Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio’s 29 completions against UMass were the most in school history by a UF quarterback in his first career start. Del Rio’s 256 yards rank fifth on the school’s all-time list for first-start starts since 1990 behind Shane Matthews (332), Tim Tebow (300), Rex Grossman (276) and Chris Leak (268).

— In the win over UMass, Redshirt freshman defensive end Jabari Zuniga became the first Gator freshman to log two sacks in a game since Justin Trattou in 2007.

— Kentucky has won its second game of the season 18 consecutive years and is 70-130 in all other contests over that span.

— Florida has not lost to Kentucky at home since a 31-3 defeat in 1979 when the Gators finished 0-10-1 in their first season under Charley Pell.

— Former Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles, who threw for 369 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in Florida’s 36-33 triple-overtime win in 2014, is now a graduate transfer at Boston College and starter for Eagles coach and former UF offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. Towles went 11-for-17 for 137 yards and an interception in his debut, a 17-14 loss to Georgia Tech.

THE OTHER SIDE

Kentucky sophomore quarterback Drew Barker, in only his third career start, had a breakout game against Southern Miss. Barker completed 15 of 24 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns, all coming in the first half. Barker became the first Kentucky quarterback to throw four touchdowns in a half since Andre Woodson did it against the Gators in 2007.

Barker’s performance impressed UF defensive-line coach Chris Rumph.

"He scares me a little bit because he is more athletic than I would like for him to be," Rumph said. "In saying that, sometimes when the pocket breaks down this guy can move. When you watch film, you see guys bouncing off him a lot. He’s not looking to run the ball all the time. He’s looking downfield trying to create a throw. This guy’s out there like Brett Favre. One time he tried to flip it underhand to a receiver in the boundary. It’s a little scary."

For a closer look at Barker, here is a highlight video from the Southern Miss game:

BOTTOM LINE

The Gators face Kentucky in their Southeastern Conference opener for the third consecutive season. Florida won in 2014 and ’15, but unlike years past during the Gators’ historic win streak, Kentucky made it interesting. Too interesting for Florida fans. What is Saturday afternoon going to be like at the Swamp? Yes, the Wildcats are more competitive of late. They return nine starters on offense. They are certainly no patsy. Still, the Gators have the deeper roster and an edge in talent. The streak will eventually end (or so we think), but this doesn’t feel like that year. Expect the Gators to play better than they did against UMass and make it 30 in a row.