By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — Kentucky ended a 31-game losing streak to Florida last season. If you ask both coaches, that outcome won’t have a bearing in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams set for Saturday at Kroger Field.
If anything, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops hopes the previous encounter against the Gators will “have a positive effect on our team” considering it took more than three decades to defeat Florida on the gridiron. The losing streak did produce several close calls prior to last year’s contest, including a 24-20 setback in 1993 and a 36-30 setback in triple overtime loss five years ago in Gainesville.
“I think just winning in general is important — and changing that culture is hard, and it took a long time. But, again, our players know that it’s a challenge each and every week, and it’s about our preparation (leading up to the game). … Everybody wants to win on Saturday, but it’s the discipline to do things throughout (the) week.”
Like Stoops, Florida coach Dan Mullen said his first conference loss as coach of the Gators won’t be a factor this time around. Following the loss, Florida compiled a 9-2 mark during the remainder of the season.
“They did a good job (and) won the game last year,” he said earlier this week. “We grew a lot from that as a team within our program and where we are. Besides, ‘Hey, this is what they did to stop us or this is what they ran on offense and defense and here’s how they made some plays, this caused us some problems, here’s some things we did well.’ That’s about what we take out of last year’s game.”
The contest will be Sawyer Smith’s debut as Kentucky’s starting quarterback and Stoops said Smith will be ready for the challenge.
“Sawyer’s a good football player — he’s accurate (and) he throws the ball accurately down the field,” Stoops said. “He’s played a lot of football.”
Mullen doesn’t expect Kentucky to “just scrap everything” when it comes to offensive schemes after starting quarterback Terry Wilson went down with a season-ending knee injury in a win over Eastern Michigan last weekend.
“They’re going to run their offense (and he) will just give a different flavor to it,” Mullen said. “They’re not going to make wholesale changes to what they do. They’re going to do what they do — very similar.”
Stoops said the Wildcats will feature some “tweaks and wrinkles and changeups to formation” but added the offense “will tailor to the plays that Sawyer does well.”
“Florida knows the basic offense, and the schemes and the basic schemes and all that’s not going to change dramatically. So I can’t see that there’s a big advantage,” Stoops said. “You know, it’s just like you hear me say all the time about that, whether who’s in at quarterback, unless it’s a drastic difference, we’re going to do what we do, Florida’s going to do what they do. They’re not going to change drastically.”
Even though Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is known for his “disruptive” approach on defense, the Wildcats rushed for 303 yards in last year’s 27-16 victory over the Gators in Gainesville.
“Todd Grantham does a remarkable job, very good coach I have a lot of respect for,” Stoops said. “They do just a really good job. They have really good players. They have some game-wreckers up there up front. They have 15 sacks in two games, and they always have great skill. So they’re well coached in all facets of the game. … They’re always really tough. They’re a tough football team, very well coached on offense, defense, special teams. So they do a good job with good players.”
Stoops said the key will be first-down efficiency and added that his team can’t afford to get behind the chains.
“It starts up front, and in our league it’s a big boy league, and so you always have to handle it up front,’ Stoops said. “And they are very, very talented and disruptive on their defensive line, and so our o-line will have their hands full. It always is. (the key is) getting positive yards on first, second down and being in manageable third downs, but also mixing it up. You can’t be predictable, because they’re pretty stout up there and they can be exotic when you get in predictable situations.”
Gametracker: Florida at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.