Lexington, KY – The 20th-ranked Florida Gators will try to defeat the Kentucky Wildcats for the 27th consecutive time on Saturday night when the SEC East Division foes square off at Commonwealth Stadium.
After a 21-16 loss at Miami-Florida on Sept. 7 caused a dip in the rankings, Florida bounced back with a 31-17 triumph over league rival Tennessee in a game in which its defense forced six turnovers. It wasn't all good news for the Gators, however, as they lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel for the season with a broken tibia.
"Very disappointed for Jeff," Florida head coach Will Muschamp said. "That's part of the game, but it's very difficult to deal with. I'm really hurt for him and his family, and for us as a football team."
"That's part of the deal -- man down, man up -- and our guys understand that," he continued. "They understand that when their number is called they have to prepare themselves the right way and I think we've done that for the most part."
Kentucky lost its opener on the road against Western Kentucky, 35-26, before earning head coach Mark Stoops his first win on Sept. 7 over Miami-Ohio (41-7). The Wildcats fought hard against nationally-ranked Louisville at home on Sept. 14, but fell in a 27-13 final, and they used their bye week to prepare for Florida.
"(I'm) very familiar with Florida having played them the past three years and knowing quite a few players on their team," said Stoops, who faced the Gators as a defensive coach with Florida State from 2010-12. "Very good team, very well coached in all phases of the game, very physical team. So we have a real challenge ahead of us this week."
With regard to the all-time series, the Gators hold a convincing 46-17 edge over the Wildcats. The incredible run for Florida against Kentucky, which dates back to 1986, is the longest active winning streak over a major opponent in an annual series.
Florida's offense has been the SEC's worst in terms of scoring this season (23.7 ppg), and conventional wisdom says that it will suffer even more without its starting quarterback, but backup QB Tyler Murphy has a similar skill set as Driskel, so there shouldn't be much of a learning curve for the offense.
In relief duty against Tennessee, Murphy completed 8-of-14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, and he also dazzled with his legs (84 yards, TD). Muschamp is eager to see what the junior can do now that he has the keys to offense.
"(Murphy's) a very popular teammate," Muschamp said. "Tyler is extremely intelligent. He did a fantastic job coming into these circumstances and performing well. (He and Driskel) are very similar guys -- athletic, they can move around and do some different things for us."
The Gators will likely lean more heavily on Mack Brown (227 rushing yards, three TDs) in Driskel's absence, although he is averaging less than four yards per carry.
Soloman Patton (212 yards, two TDs), Trey Burton (160 yards) and Quinton Dunbar (183 yards) gives Murphy three trusty receivers to rely on in the passing game.
While the offense remains a big question, Florida fortunately has one of the nation's top defenses to lean on. The unit surrenders just 14.7 ppg and ranks second in the FBS in total defense (212.3 ypg).
Of the team's six interceptions, Vernon Hargreaves has recorded two to go along with three pass break-ups. Antonio Morrison leads the team in tackles with 13 despite missing a game, while Dante Fowler, Jr. and D.L. Powell each have 4.0 TFL.
The Kentucky offense has seen drastic improvement this year, ranking fifth in the SEC in yardage (490.0 ypg), but moving the ball up and down the field has not translated on to the scoreboard, as the team ranks 13th in the SEC with 26.7 ppg.
Maxwell Smith has been the most effective quarterback for the Wildcats with 544 yards, four touchdown and zero interceptions, but he is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. Jalen Whitlow will likely see action regardless of Smith's status. He is completing 63.6 percent of his passes for 286 yards with a touchdown and a pick, and he has some impressive rushing stats as well (160 yards, two TDs).
Jojo Kemp has 167 rushing yards on greater than nine yards per carry. He and Raymond Sanders (153 yards, TD) form a solid one-two punch in the backfield.
Although 14 different receivers have caught a pass for the 'Cats, only Javess Blue (15 receptions, 197 yards, TD) has double-digit receptions.
Stoops has implemented a new defensive scheme in his first year at the helm and the results so far have been outstanding, as the Wildcats are allowing just 23.0 ppg while holding teams to a mere 23 percent success on third down.
Avery Williamson (35 tackles) is one of the conference's top linebackers and he has racked up nearly twice as many stops as any of his teammates. Za'Darius Smith, a junior college transfer, has made a name for himself in his first season with 4.5 sacks.