Week 1 was a tremendous success for Florida football, which overcame the odds to pull off the season-opening upset over the Utah Utes and earn some much-needed respect from the fans and media alike.
That is the good news. The bad news is Week 2 is not going to be much easier as the AP Poll’s No. 12 Gators play host to the No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats in the Swamp on Saturday. Ahead of the SEC-opening matchup, a great deal of conversation has surrounded one of the marquee games in the second full week of college football.
ESPN’s staff took a stab at breaking down this weekend’s top matchups, with Chris Low offering his take on the UF-UK game. Read below his lengthy narrative for the highly-anticipated game.
Even mentioning Kentucky’s name in context with the Top 25 rankings or the SEC football race was at one time pure fantasy.
Come on, at a basketball school? Don’t get football coach Mark Stoops started on that one, especially this week, as his Wildcats take on Florida in the Swamp, a game that in the past barely caused a ripple in the SEC. After all, Florida won 31 consecutive games in the series before the Wildcats finally broke through in 2018.
But on Saturday, it will be the first SEC matchup of the 2022 season pitting two nationally ranked teams against each other. Coming into this season, most would have predicted that Kentucky would be the only team ranked among the two. That’s before Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson went into full Cam Newton-mode last week in the Gators’ 29-26 upset of then-No. 7 Utah.
“It’s tough to single out any one thing,” Stoops said of how to slow down Richardson. “He has a talented arm. Everybody is going to say what an athlete he is, but he can rip it and throw the ball, as well.”
The quarterback matchup in this game should be a treat. Kentucky’s Will Levis is a projected first-round NFL draft pick, and with the Wildcats again expected to be without star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., Levis might have to carry an even heavier burden if Kentucky is going to beat Florida for the third time in the past five years. The Gators gave up 230 rushing yards to the Utes, and Levis is plenty capable of doing his own damage on the ground. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Levis passed for 24 touchdowns and ran for nine more last season.
“When you have that franchise quarterback, it changes everything,” Stoops said.
Stoops has completely changed the football landscape at Kentucky, to the point that he can pass Bear Bryant on Saturday as Kentucky’s all-time wins leader. That’s something that would resonate for a long time no matter the opponent, but doing it on the road against Florida?
“People underestimate how hard it is to build a program in the SEC from the bottom,” said Stoops, who is 60-53 at Kentucky and has guided the Wildcats to four straight bowl victories. “There’s been a lot of investment here by a lot of different people.”
And look at the return.
Kentucky has won 10 games twice in the past four years. Prior to that, the Wildcats hadn’t won 10 games in a season since 1977. Stoops’ ability to develop players, maintain a staff that fits the program’s culture and create a steely toughness that permeates the entire program are all factors that have led to Kentucky’s sustained success.
“That’s the main thing, because there’s nobody interested in going backward in this league,” said Stoops, the second-longest-tenured coach in the SEC, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Over the past five seasons (going back to the start of 2017), only four SEC teams have won more games than Kentucky: Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. With 42 wins, the Aggies have only one more victory than the Wildcats during that stretch.
Stoops, who took over at Kentucky in 2013, has seen 22 head coaches pack up and leave the SEC since his hiring, and only two of those left to take another job. Stoops has had opportunities to leave and would have been a real possibility at LSU last year had Brian Kelly not decided to leave Notre Dame.
“I feel very connected here, very connected to this fan base. I feel like there’s mutual respect because we built it from the ground up,” Stoops said. “You don’t get that everywhere. And no matter what school you’re at or what level, it’s hard. You want to be somewhere that you’re rooted. Look at Bob (older brother Bob Stoops) and how rooted he was at Oklahoma.
“You don’t ever escape how hard it is to win, maybe for a honeymoon period when you first leave, but that’s it.”
Kentucky at Florida is set to kick off at 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and can be watched on ESPN or heard on the Gators Radio Network.
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