football Edit

Staff Predictions: UK-UF

Sawyer Smith (USA TODAY Sports)
Sawyer Smith (USA TODAY Sports)

Cats Illustrated writers Jeff Drummond, Travis Graf, and Justin Rowland head to that familiar round table to discuss UK-Florida and offer up predictions.

What are the main reasons for Kentucky fans to be confident going into the Florida game?

Jeff Drummond: I see at least two angles for confidence from Kentucky. (1) The Cats won last season IN The Swamp, and did it in convincing fashion. There were no flukes, no big breaks, just domination along the line of scrimmage. UK bullied the Gators up front, and most of the guys doing that bullying are back this season; (2) I wasn't particularly impressed with Florida in its win over Miami, and I can't gauge anything about the Gators in their rout of UT-Martin, traditionally one of the weaker teams in the OVC and FCS level.

Graf: When was the last time that Kentucky’s defensive line had the advantage over Florida’s offensive line on paper going into the game? Not that I can ever remember. Kentucky’s offensive line is as talented on paper as Florida’s defensive line as well. For both of UK’s lines to have an advantage or push against the Gators, that’s never happened. Florida has struggled in the run game and isn’t getting much push up front. Also, the Gators’ best defensive back, CJ Henderson, is out for this game and so is their highlight reel slot receiver, Kadarius Toney. Florida’s defensive backfield will be vulnerable to shots down the field, where Kentucky’s first-time starter, Sawyer Smith, excels most.

Rowland: I've loved the intangibles for this Kentucky team on paper all offseason and through now. The leadership, the expectation of winning, and in this game the home field advantage. I think that combination of intangibles really gives me some confidence in Kentucky going into this game. Then there's the fact that Kentucky has the offensive line, one would thing, to mitigate or neutralize the advantage Florida's defensive line is going to give the Gators against most opponents. Florida's offensive line is probably outmatched by Kentucky's front seven going into this game so overall I like Kentucky in the trenches. That counts for a lot in the SEC.

What are the reasons to be concerned?

Drummond: Florida will be highly motivated in this game, so there's little chance that the Gators will be overlooking the Cats. You've also go the UK quarterback situation, transitioning from an injured Terry Wilson to grad transfer Sawyer Smith. We think Smith will play well, but nobody will know for sure until he's out there against an aggressive defense that already has 15 sacks this season. Terry Wilson's intangibles and ability to turn a bad play into a good one with his feet could be missed more than we realize.

Graf: Kentucky is without Terry Wilson for the first time since 2017. The receivers are familiar with him and the way that he plays as well as his timing on throws. Sawyer Smith can make plays and is an above average quarterback, but nobody knows exactly what to expect beyond that. Terry was talented at escaping the pocket and extending plays with his feet, something that will be needed against this Florida pass rush. Can Smith do that? We’ll find out. On the defensive side of the ball, the ‘Cats are going up against the fastest lineup they’ve faced all year. The secondary will be tested time and time again and we’ll have to wait and see how this group responds to getting punched in the mouth by a big play against a quality opponent.

Rowland: There are two reasons for concern in my mind. First is the Gator pass rush. Anyone saying those 15 sacks are the result of playing two bad offensive lines has to explain why fifteen sacks still isn't impressive, even against bad offensive lines. This defense is fast and it absolutely has the potential to make game-changing plays. The second is the talent Florida possesses at wide receiver. UK's secondary has played well enough through two games considering the losses but this will be the test I've been pointing towards for the last several months. We'll know where the defensive backs stand after this game.

Who will be Kentucky's MVP on Saturday night?

Drummond: Logan Stenberg is my MVP pick in this one. We don't typically choose offensive linemen for this honor, but if the Cats are going to win this game, the big men have to lead the way. Stenberg is big and mean and nasty on the field, and the Cats will need some of that attitude to rub off on other guys to win this SEC brawl.

Graf: Lynn Bowden. This will be the game where national guys realize that Bowden is a top-tier SEC wide receiver. The coaching staff is going to make it a point to get him the ball in as many ways possible early and often, especially in space against Florida’s inexperienced cornerbacks. I think he has 250+ all-purpose yards and accounts for 2 touchdowns.

Rowland: Landon Young. One week removed from winning the Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week honors for his dominant play against Eastern Michigan, the former five-star builds on that with his signature performance as a Wildcat. Florida wins this game if Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard do what they have done rushing from the edge this season. With a new quarterback in his first start in the SEC, Kentucky needs Young to win this matchup on the outside.

What's your prediction for the game?

Drummond: Kentucky 23, Florida 20 -- I picked the Gators going into the season, but I've had the feeling all week that the Cats are going to play well in this game. There is a quiet confidence to the coaches and players this week. They feel like they should have won this game three out of the last four years. UK controls the line of scrimmage and wins the ever-important rushing column en route to a hard-fought victory.

Graf: Kentucky 24, Florida 21. Sawyer Smith does a good job of protecting the ball as the Kentucky offensive line gives him a clean pocket for the majority of the game. I think the ‘Cats catch the Gators with their ears pinned back and consistently hit quick passes or gain chunk yardage in the run game. Kentucky’s secondary gets burned a few times, but they also make some big game-changing plays along the way.

Rowland: Kentucky 24, Florida 23. My preseason pick was Florida 34-24 but as I said this week on social media I'm flipping that to Kentucky. When I think about Kash Daniel's last game against the Gators, the atmosphere at Kroger Field, Lynn Bowden wearing Terry Wilson's No. 3, and the Gators missing a couple of key pieces, as well as UF playing its first road game of the season, I'm just inclined to think Kentucky gets a big "W".