If you're sick of hearing about "the streak" you'll only have to endure this kind of talk for a little while longer. If Kentucky wins, it's a thing of the past. If Kentucky loses to Florida, again, you can ignore the topic until next year.
We at Cats Illustrated have purposefully avoided an obsession with "the streak," not to do anyone any favors, but because Kentucky-Florida in 2017 is a really big game with relevant story lines in the here and now. Nonetheless, if you're one of those who bristles at any mention of "the last 30 years," either find another content item to read here at Cats Illustrated or acknowledge that some of the streak talk is inevitable.
Here's a unique look at a frequently discussed topic: Just how does one team beat another team, from the same conference, every single year for 30 consecutive years?
But beyond that, why does this year really seem different than so many of those past meetings?
There are precedents, but not many
It almost defies belief. It certainly seems to defy the law of averages. It seems that, even as an underdog or an overwhelming underdog, Kentucky would have won several, even one of the last 30 meetings with the Gators. Last year Kentucky defeated Louisville as a four touchdown underdog. When Louisville got a crack at the Gators in the Sugar Bowl several years ago, one crack, they won that game. That's an uncomfortable truth that serves to underscore just how mind-boggling Kentucky's befuddlement with the Gators from Gainesville has been.
I'm not going to recap "the five closest calls" or "the most haunting moments" or take you down any kind of torturous tour through the wounded halls of your memory. No, if you're reading this you've probably done that yourself, many times.
Here, I'd like to explore just how it's even possible for one team to lose to another, from the same conference, for as long as Kentucky has lost to Florida.
Bear in mind, this isn't a blame-assigning exercise. Plenty of Kentucky coaches, quarterbacks and other position players bear a small share of responsibility of the blame, but no one shoulders a large amount of it. Besides, taken year by year, it's not as though any of Kentucky's losses to Florida since 1986 could have reasonably prompted a person to wonder how the Cats could have lost to the Gators. The gap has just been wide.
There are precedents for this kind of streak. Regrettably, a very recent precedent was Kentucky's almost identical streak against Tennessee, even more inexplicable in the latter stages because of the Vols' slow fall from elite status after their 1998 national title.
Kansas lost to Nebraska 36 times (and years) in a row from 1969-2004.
Kansas State lost to Oklahoma 32 times (and years) in a row from 1937-1968. In a tremendous touch of misfortune for K-State fans, the very next year after the Wildcats ended their losing streak to the Sooners, they started a 29-year losing streak to Nebraska. That's arguably tougher to stomach than Kentucky's streak against Florida and the former streak against Tennessee, because it's a sign that K-State was really that bad for twice as long.
In the entire history of college football those three infamous streaks belonging to Sunflower State squads are the only comparable examples to the one Kentucky has stubbornly held onto. Navy had their 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame, but a service academy losing, year after year, to a program that was often at the top of the sport isn't quite the same. Nor was Temple's 31-game losing streak to Penn State, which ended in 2015. Temple might not be a basketball-only mid-major, but they're the next closest thing for much of history.
Then there's Kentucky-Florida, and this one's still going on. At least for one more day.
What's really remarkable about the streak is what you see when you peer inside it and look closer. For instance, Kentucky was more than competitive in the series in the time period immediately preceding the start of that losing streak. Florida did win six in a row before Kentucky's last win (so it's 36 of 37 for UF), but right before that Kentucky beat the Gators in 1974, 1976, 1977 and 1979. The bottom just fell out. Adding insult to injury in more recent times, Kentucky's five-bowl streak (2006-2010) was followed by a string of losses by scores of 63-5, 41-7, 48-14, 48-10 and 38-0. So right when you felt like the streak had to end soon, the streak got as bad as it had ever been.
So our question: How is it even possible to defy the simple laws of averages, which would seem to indicate that even an annual heavy underdog would occasionally break through? One would imagine that even a heavy favorite would have a turnover-fueled loss or two, an injury-plagued sluggish performance, or, once in a while, would be on the wrong end of a tremendous individual performance by someone like Tim Couch or Randall Cobb.
The short answer is there is no satisfying single explanation for how this streak has continued, but there have been a convergence of several factors, and themes, that have contributed to Kentucky's annual agony.
1. The overall talent and depth gap hasn't usually been significant, it has been enormous.
Ponder these numbers. In the whole history of Florida and Kentucky's football programs, the Gators have had 32 consensus All-Americans to Kentucky's 10. Florida has had three Heisman Trophy winners. Florida has had 52 first round draft picks to 14 for Kentucky.
Florida has been a mainstay in the Top 10 of the Rivals.com recruiting rankings since the network's inception 15-plus years ago. While it's very likely many of the Gators' classes from 1986 through the early 1990's might not have ranked quite as high, they certainly brought in vastly more talent than Kentucky. Look at results on the field, draft pick numbers and NFL careers.
Alabama's dynasty under Nick Saban has been the greatest run for any single SEC team in history, but second were those of Spurrier and Meyer in Gainesville, disconnected only by a brief span of time. And while the Fun 'N Gun offense and Meyer's own mind deserve plenty of credit for that, the Jimmies and Joes are the main reason the Gators have three national titles during this 30-year run.
Mark Stoops has done an immense amount to narrow the talent gap, pulling in the best and most highly-ranked classes in modern Kentucky history. And he's done it against the odds, against that tide of history, and even as the rest of the SEC has elevated its recruiting prowess. But Stoops has only been at Kentucky for five years. The other 25 years, the gap couldn't have been wider at the major conference level.
2. Kentucky's recruiting base, historically, has been vastly inferior to Florida's.
During most of the last 30 years programs like Alabama, Clemson and LSU didn't have the chops to pull top talent from Florida, the state that has produced more NFL talent than any other. If you were elite, for most of the span of this streak, you went to one of the Big Three. And while the pendulum sometimes favored the Seminoles or Hurricanes, the Gators have always "gotten theirs."
It's not like Florida has depended entirely on talent from one sliver of the most talented state in the nation. At different times they've succeeded in the obscenely talent-dense South Florida region while at others they have thrived with Central Floridians or Jacksonville players. And when one well dries up for a class or two, the rest of the state has provided ample elite talent. Furthermore, when you have three national titles over a span of just more than 10 years, your base expands. Florida, with an unfair local recruiting advantage, has recruited nationally better than any other SEC program over the past 20 or so years, current Alabama as the lone exception.
Meanwhile, the Stoops era has indeed been the exception for Kentucky. Incredibly, Kentucky never heavily invested or prioritized the talent-rich Buckeye State as the northernmost school in a southern conference, opting instead to mine talent-rich but competition-heavy southern states for mostly third-tier players whose offer lists had a distinct mid-major feel. Those days are gone now, fortunately for Kentucky, but a gap has persisted. And for almost all of these three decades it has been a roster full of top Florida and national talent against a roster blended with Commonwealth talent (the lowest number of Division I players of any SEC state) and slim pickings from elsewhere.
3. Florida's had some really outstanding quarterbacks over the years, and great quarterbacks are tough to beat.
Kentucky fans have actually seen more quality quarterbacks over the past 20 years than it might seem if you're just thinking about the time period between the underappreciated Mike Hartline and the underappreciated (but less so now) Stephen Johnson. Tim Couch, Dusty Bonner, Jared Lorenzen and Andre Woodson, plus the two others, are a better than average bunch in a short period of time when you consider the program's overall struggles. Some of that was Kentucky finding itself on the cutting edge of offensive innovation at the end of the 20th century, true. Kentucky isn't QB U in the same way Southern Cal could stake a claim to that title, but they haven't been chopped liver either.
Nonetheless, quarterback play has decidedly favored the Gators in this rivalry. And Florida has almost always had the quarterback edge against nearly everyone else over the past 30 years, with Florida State and Tennessee as the possible exceptions.
During the span of the streak the Gators have been led by, among others, honorable mention All-American and All-SEC first teamer Kerwin Bell, second team All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year Shane Matthews, Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and national champions Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, the latter also a Heisman winner. In "off years" the Gators were often piloted by average-to-good quarterbacks that Steve Spurrier made to look very good, more often than not, even as he played musical chairs at the position.
This is a significant factor in the streak's existence that cannot be overlooked. When the team with the huge talent advantage has also had the best quarterback play in the sport over that span, it eliminates some of the variables that lead to toe-stubs.
4. The last 30 years have been the pinnacle of Florida football success, whereas the last 30 years have been, with some exceptions, the worst of times for UK football.
All-time, not just over the past 30 years, Florida has spent 586 years in the Associated Press Top 25 poll (going into this season). Compare that to 78 for Kentucky. Shrink the snapshot in time to the period encompassing the streak and the ratio is even more pronounced. In short, Florida has been one of the most consistent forces in college football for three decades. In turn, Kentucky's inability to crack the Top 25 during the span of the streak has been equally real. It's not like the Gators have been hanging out at the shallow end of that poll most years, either. No, Florida has spent a whopping 41 weeks (10th all-time, much higher over the last three decades) ranked No. 1 in that poll. Kentucky has never climbed that high in the rankings.
Florida has racked up some incredible team statistics and accomplishments over the past 30 years. That's to their credit.
5. Because Florida has been so good for so long, they've rarely had the "luxury" of overlooking a conference opponent with a championship on the line.
Sometimes when the wheels come off for a team, they really come off. And there are lots of lopsided Power Five rivalries that have avoided very long streaks because the more successful team is having a down year, or a down stretch, and everything that could go wrong does go wrong. Florida just hasn't had many of those years when the wheels totally come off, and in the latter part of the streak the Kentucky-Florida game has been played early enough in the season (rather than November, when the Gators were often on the shaded sideline in a cold Commonwealth Stadium) that Florida has still had the world to play for.
6. Playing this game early in the year makes it hard to ever catch Florida sleeping or in letdown mode.
If Kentucky and Florida still played in November the streak probably still wouldn't be intact, but not because of the cold. Because occasionally the Gators have made it to November without a whole lot left to play for and motivation has been lacking in one week or another. These days, Florida faces Kentucky when its players are still harboring realistic national or SEC championship aspirations. A letdown or all systems fail scenario is less likely under those circumstances. Then again, who knows how much of a factor this would be? Kentucky-Tennessee has been lopsided and those teams play at the end of the season. Furthermore, Kentucky hasn't had close to Florida's depth, historically, and depth is most tested late in the season.
If all this seems like a pointless exercise that's nothing but a distraction from the game on Saturday, which really matters, I'll admit it has a limited value.
However, my big point here isn't to just rehash the last 30 years and try to explain something that I've already said has no easy or rational explanation. My real intent is to point to those historical factors, which have tilted this series heavily towards Florida, to make the case that Saturday's game really is different than almost any other that has been played in this series since 1986.
Why is Saturday's game just different?
1. The talent and depth gap is narrower that it has been in at least two decades.
I'm not going to pretend to be able to accurately measure the overall roster talent and depth of these teams in 1988, but we can say with near perfect certainty that Kentucky has almost never been this close to Florida in overall talent.
So those historical factors that favored the Gators - recruiting base advantage, depth advantage, draft pick-level talent and so on - do not apply in the same way to this year's meeting. It's probably true that Florida, currently, has more future draft picks than Kentucky. Their average starter and two-deep player still had a substantially higher ranking than Kentucky's players who will see the field tomorrow night. But the gap is not nearly what it was.
For instance, Florida's linebacking corps is widely perceived to be a weakness because of their inconsistency, their struggles tackling this year, and their lack of depth. Kentucky's linebacking corps, meanwhile, has two All-SEC candidates even absent Jordan Jones, and the second backup behind Jones rose to the occasion on the road at South Carolina. Let it sink in: Kentucky has better linebackers, and better linebacker depth, than Florida. When else have we been able to say that?
2. Florida does not have the quarterback advantage that they have so often had in this game.
The quarterback edge has not always gone to Florida. Some years Kentucky's quarterback has been more accomplished and even just as highly regarded. But when you take the widespread belief that Stephen Johnson and Feleipe Franks is at least a push, and perhaps an advantage to Kentucky based on seniority and Franks' lack of experience, and you compound that with the reasonable assertion that the talent gap overall has narrowed, that's a serious difference. More similar talent (if not equal), a push or advantage Kentucky at quarterback ... that makes for a very different forecast.
When else have those circumstances conspired against the Gators?
3. While Florida's best teams have come in the last 30 years, and many of Kentucky's worst teams have come in the last 30 years, that is certainly not true this year.
There's no reason to believe this will be the worst Florida team in X-amount of years. It would also be premature to say this is the best Kentucky team in X-amount of years. But there are plenty of signs that this is not one of Florida's better teams in recent history. On the flip side, even if this isn't the best Kentucky team since 2007 (and it may well prove to be, or perhaps better), it's absolutely one of Kentucky's better teams compared to most years in recent history.
So the modern historical trend that pits Florida in its glory years against Kentucky in its doldrums, does not hold either. That simply means there's a very different dynamic in terms of the quality we'll see on each sideline.
4. Kentucky actually has more forward momentum as a program right now than does Florida.
What that does not mean: It doesn't mean that Kentucky's closer to an SEC or national championship than Florida. It doesn't mean they're as good as Florida (though we'll find out soon).
But momentum matters. It's part of culture, atmosphere, locker room attitude.
Where is Florida at?
Well, the Gators are dealing with one major off the field scandal that has already led to mass suspensions and could lead to much worse for those players. That won't necessarily impact the attitude or mindset of the Gators that take the field Saturday night, but at the very least it means Florida will be less than full strength. Beyond that, Florida's players probably haven't given up on their highest goals this season, but are they going to bring the same level of urgency they might have brought if they had defeated Michigan and were carrying a Top 10 record into Kroger Field? We'll see.
On the other hand, Kentucky has much more to gain in this game than they normally have against the Gators. Most years this game really is just about breaking the streak, establishing some respectability and getting a great win. But this year, with a 1-0 record after a road win in its conference opener, Kentucky can harbor legitimate SEC East title aspirations...and if you still think that's far fetched, you won't if they win.
That doesn't guarantee the intangibles favor Kentucky, because this "momentum" angle also favored Kentucky during the 2007 season when the Cats were ranked No. 7 and the Gators No. 17.
But it does mean that while Florida has historically had more to play for in the big picture in this game, Kentucky has at least as much to play for...and maybe more considering this is unfamiliar territory if not totally uncharted. Kentucky doesn't seem to struggle for motivation against the Gators. Talent has been the bigger obstacle in the past. But will this "momentum" angle affect the mood and mindset of the Gators? Maybe the Hail Mary against the Vols helped in that regard.
5. Kentucky can, on paper, match up with Florida in the trenches.
This is just a more specific mention of the theme on the talent gap closing, but it does deserve special mention. Kentucky has, over these past 30 years, had its share of quality quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Less often have the Cats had an offensive line that has the potential to move the Florida defensive line off the ball. And even less often have they had a defensive line that has people wondering whether they might have the edge over Florida's offensive line.
We still don't know exactly how good Kentucky's offensive and defensive lines are. But all we have to go on through three games are the numbers, and by the numbers, the Cats look better than the Gators in the trenches. In pass protection, in run blocking, in stopping the run (not in rushing the passer).
This is a very substantial difference and a real historical anomaly especially on the defensive side, considering how difficult it is to recruit good defensive linemen.
6. Finally, and this may rile up some Gator fans (and mostly coach defenders), but the coaching gap has never been this small...at least in a long time.
There's no way to say that without letting it be an unintended shot at some of Kentucky's past coaches, but when the Cats have been lining up on the sideline opposite from Steve Spurrier in his prime and Urban Meyer in his prime, narrowing the gap is bound to happen. McElwain is an accomplished, respected coach in his own right. But he doesn't come to games with the same reputation as those titans of the sport. Mark Stoops still has a lot to prove yet, and he's been a work in progress at Kentucky, but at the very least it seems safe to say that he's more comfortable and better now than he was when he first became a head coach.
Given that Kentucky has started paying its assistant coaches more than in the past, relative to the going rate, and the program's deeper investments into its strength program, it stands to reason that the overall coaching and S&C gap has probably narrowed, too.
All this talk goes out the window on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.
We might be witnessing 31 in a row for the Gators. But when you look at the big advantages the Gators have had over the Cats, they don't seem, at least, to hold up in this meeting.
Maybe that's why the line is so close, and closing fast, and maybe that's why Kentucky's such a trendy pick.