KICKOFF: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET
GAME DATE: 9/28/13
SITE: Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
SERIES: Kentucky is 17-46 against Florida and was trounced 38-0 by the Gators last season. The Wildcats haven't beaten Florida since 1986 and have not been lcompetitive in recent seasons.
RANKINGS: Florida, No. 20
KEYS TO THE GAME
It is that dreaded time of the season when Kentucky checks the schedule and sees that the Florida Gators are Saturday's opponent.
The Wildcats have lost 26 consecutive games to Florida, and the last five have been particularly ugly, as the cumulative scores add up this way: Florida 238, Kentucky 36.
So it really isn't feasible to ask if the Wildcats (1-2) can upset the No. 20 Gators. At this point, Kentucky just needs to avoid a blowout when first-year coach Mark Stoops gets his first crack at Florida in its Southeastern Conference opener.
Stoops has been made aware of the losing streak over and over this week -- yes, he was well aware of it before taking the Kentucky job -- and understands the need to discuss the situation without getting consumed by it.
"Sure, I think it's motivation. I do," Stoops said. "I think it needs to be talked about, but that can't be the focal point. We have to get better each and every day, each and every game. And that's what we're worried about, and that's been our message since I've been here is just to get better."
Kentucky had a bye last weekend after losing to a ranked Louisville squad on Sept. 14. The next two games also feature ranked programs in South Carolina and current No. 1 Alabama. It is a daunting stretch for a program that has been an SEC cellar dweller for years.
"We didn't talk about the opponents," Stoops said. "We can't worry about that. We've got to worry about Florida this week and getting better. We talked about it, but it's the truth. We just need to get better."
Kentucky did catch one break as Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel broke his right leg last Saturday. Junior Tyler Murphy will make his first career start for the Gators.
An underlying theme is that former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips -- fired after last season -- is now Florida's receivers coach. Phillips certainly knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Wildcats' veteran players.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Maxwell Smith had a week to rest his injured throwing shoulder and will be watched closely in practices to see if he's ready to handle the workload. Coach Mark Stoops said Smith will be on a "pitch count" in practice sessions. Smith is Kentucky's best downfield thrower and has been rotating with run-oriented QB Jalen Whitlow this season.
--RB Jojo Kemp has emerged as Kentucky's most dangerous running back, and the true freshman is taking playing time away from inconsistent senior Raymond Sanders. Kemp has a team-best 167 rushing yards and is averaging an amazing 9.3 yards per carry. He will get an increased workload against the Gators, who have a strong run defense and will provide a stern test for the youngster.
--MLB Avery Williamson leads the SEC with 35 tackles as he follows up his strong junior campaign. He has impressed Stoops with the way he goes about his business. "He's always very serious about what he does," Stoops said. "He works extremely hard every day, pays attention in the meetings -- is always there. He's been very solid since we've been here and for a long time. I just really appreciate the work he's doing."
--DT Donte Rumph injured a shoulder against Louisville on Sept. 14, and how effective he will be against the Gators is an issue. Florida typically runs all over the Wildcats, and the odds of slowing down the Gators diminish if he isn't at full strength. Kentucky needs the senior to hold up physically during this arduous stretch against Florida, South Carolina and Alabama.
--QB Tyler Murphy is looking forward to handling the expectations of his first career start. The redshirt junior looked comfortable in the pocket and did a nice job running the read-option, finishing with 134 yards and one TD passing and 84 yards and one TD rushing. Coach Will Muschamp said he wants Murphy to be more careful running the ball because of the lack of experienced depth at QB behind him. "We've talked to him about sliding or taking the ball out of bounds," Muschamp said.
--DE Dante Fowler was named SEC defensive player of the week after his breakout performance against Tennessee and immediately credited DT Dominique Easley attracting all the attention of blockers and allowing him to play. But Easley suffered a season-ending knee injury on Tuesday, so Fowler and the rest of the defense will need to step up. Against Tennessee, Fowler forced two fumbles against the Vols, recovering one, and finished the game with three tackles for loss and one sack. He will be counted on to provide pressure off the edge against Tennessee.
--WR Solomon Patton is emerging as a playmaking threat. Patton posted his second TD catch of the season, taking a bubble screen and turning it into a 52-yard catch and run from Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy. For the season, Patton is leading the Gators in receiving yards (212) and receiving TDs (two).
--DB Jaylen Watkins proved his versatility last Saturday against Tennessee. Watkins started at SS but had to move to CB due to injuries to CB Marcus Roberson, CB Loucheiz Purifoy and the ejection of CB Brian Poole. Watkins came up with a big pass breakup in the fourth quarter against the Vols and finished with a team-high seven tackles.