Rowland: 10 first thoughts on Kentucky-Florida

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

On Monday morning, Cats Illustrated publisher Justin Rowland shared 10 thoughts on the state of Kentucky's program after a huge road win at South Carolina.

Here are 10 more thoughts, this time first takes on the Kentucky-Florida match up that everyone's talking about.

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What's Duke Dawson's real status?

Florida head coach Jim McElwain said Monday at his weekly press conference that defensive back Duke Dawson is "highly questionable" for the Kentucky game. However, around that same time Dawson tweeted that there's nothing to worry about and he will be good to go for the Kentucky game. So take that for what it's worth.

If Dawson can't go or is less than 100-percent it would be a big blow for Florida's secondary, defense and team in general. He scored one of the Gators' two defensive touchdowns in the season opener against Michigan. Then he followed that up with six tackles and his second interception in two games against Tennessee over the weekend.

McElwain's plan was at least to hold Dawson out from practicing on Monday and it seems like Florida's coaches are mostly concerned about their nickel package.

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Jim McElwain knows this won't be easy

Earlier in the day I wrote that Mark Stoops really sounds like he believes Kentucky's going to win this Saturday's game. He didn't just say the right things. He sounded the part of someone who knows his team's in a good place.

If you go back and watch Jim McElwain's news conference from Monday, there's no question that McElwain really believes Kentucky is going to be a formidable challenge. This shouldn't come as a huge shock because Florida's favored by only four points, but over the past 30 years there have been more than a few when the Florida coach has said the right things (or in Steve Spurrier's case, didn't) but probably knew they had an overwhelming advantage.

Here's what McElwain told reporters in Gainesville when he was asked about Stoops' progress with Kentucky's program.

RELATED: 10 Monday thoughts on UK football

“He in his, what, fifth or sixth year, I don’t know exactly what it is, but they’re playing in, kind of, the way he wants it played. And I think they’ve done an outstanding job of fitting those pieces. You know, they’ve got big, long corners that can really disrupt you on the outside. They’ve got some, what I’ve noticed, they’ve really increased their size on the inside and, you’ve alluded to it, nobody’s running the football on ‘em. Then when you’re not running it it makes you one-dimensional.

"So, I think that’s a credit to what he and his staff have been able to do. They’ve done some really good things there as a program emphasizing football. They’ve really given him some good things there to recruit to and, obviously, he’s done a heck of a job. I’ve seen it come a long way, so like you’ve said, when I look all the way back this is a totally different Kentucky football team.”

Perceptions are changing, but that's because reality is changing.

Something else is changing....

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The game's line is getting closer. Florida opened at -4 and now the Gators are 2.5-point favorites

That's in spite of Jordan Jones being ruled out. Truthfully, one linebacker's absence is not going to impact the game's line all that much, and the way Eli Brown and Jamar Watson played on Saturday in Jones' absence obviously hasn't led bettors to believe that Kentucky is going to miss their All-SEC player at the spot.

My confidence in Kentucky's chances in this game went up just watching the two coaches talk to reporters on Monday. Mark Stoops exuded quiet confidence. McElwain didn't come across as someone who's panicking, but his demeanor was less convincing. Of course the players will determine the game, but it was interesting to see the difference in how the two sounded.

What stands out when the Gators are on offense?

Having reviewed film of Florida's first and second games, against Michigan and Tennessee, there's plenty of sample size available to lead to some legitimate conclusions.

Right tackle Jawaan Taylor wasn't ranked nearly as high as some of Florida's other starters (a three-star who didn't register in the Rivals.com position rankings) but Florida's coaches love to get him out in space blocking on pitches and screens. He moves very well and gets to linebackers and defensive backs with ease, sealing off the sideline. Kentucky's defensive players will be fighting off his blocks all game and those much smaller defenders need to play fast enough to get out in front of his blocks.

In spite of that, Florida's offensive line is not a very strong unit and Kentucky should be able to pressure Franks. Their game plan against Tennessee was very conservative in the pass game and it seemed like McElwain and the offensive staff didn't really trust the protection to give Franks time on deeper routes down the field.

Florida will have a hard time blocking Denzil Ware, Josh Allen and others if they want their receivers to go over the top, so expect them to throw a lot of short stuff against Kentucky just as they did over the weekend against the Vols. Tackling and knowing when to jump routes will be important.

Florida has not had much success running the ball through two games but they still have the potential to eat up yards on the ground. UK defenders can't try tackling Mark Thompson high. Malik Davis is a different kind of back with more burst. Absent Jordan Scarlett this unit is less imposing, but they have at least a power-speed duo that Kentucky will have to prepare for.

Kadarius Toney is a "slippery" player on offense, a prototype for the kind of player Lynn Bowden could be for Kentucky, and after a solid performance against Tennessee look for the Gators to try to get him the ball more in Lexington. He is a baller and someone you should be worried about.

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What stands out when the Gators are on defense?

Before the season the widespread expectation was that Florida's run defense would anchor the defense while the secondary adjusted following some big losses. The reverse has been true. The Gators have been stingy against opponents' pass games (how much of that is facing Wilton Speight & Dormady?) and less than stout against the run. That's probably a good thing for Kentucky.

If Duke Dawson is good to go that's a big part of UF's secondary and passing on the Gators becomes more difficult (and more dangerous). C.J. Henderson and some of the Gators' younger defensive backs are showing a lot and their secondary should be in good hands for a long time. They look to have a solid advantage against Kentucky's receivers in this game even though Lamar Thomas' unit played really well against South Carolina.

VIDEO: Stoops on UF week, the streak, 'crazy' talk

Up front, Florida's defensive ends have looked better than their tackles. That presents an opportunity for Kentucky's inferior offensive line to get some push and establish Snell up the middle. But UK's tackles, Landon Young and Kyle Meadows, are going to have their hands full dealing with athletic players like Jabari Zuniga, Jordan Sherit and Jachai Polite. They are very good and among the better collections of ends Kentucky will face this season.

In watching the tape from Florida's first two games, I'm just not all that impressed with the Gator linebackers. Kentucky has the better linebackers in this game.

This is a fast Florida defense, a dangerous secondary and a team of ends that can create big plays on pressures and sacks. But it's not a truly vintage Florida defense. It's not one of the best I've seen the Gators field.

Tackling has been a concern for Florida early in the season.

Kentucky has the quarterback advantage in this game

Feleipe Franks is a good quarterback and he can be a very good quarterback in the future but in this game Stephen Johnson is the quarterback I'd rather have. Franks may end the season with better numbers than Johnson but in terms of knowing game situations Johnson has been uncanny. He's a much more experienced player and while Florida's defense has been very good at picking off passes you have to believe that Johnson will be able to protect the football if, a big if, he gets decent protection. Mark Stoops said on Monday that there will be big plays and swings in this game, but in the end he's confident because he doesn't believe his team will be fazed by the 60 minute roller coaster. Johnson is why he probably feels that way, more than any other single player on the team.

There is no question that Franks has talent but right now he's just scratching the surface. He has not been the best decision maker in the pocket this year. He hasn't been a turnover machine, but he has left a lot of yards and probably points on the board going to the wrong receiver. He looks like a guy who is playing with an impressive amount of confidence in his ability and the offense especially considering the protection questions and the suspensions around him, but give the edge to the much older Johnson, who is playing the best football of his life.

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Another 30-carry game for Benny Snell?

If Benny Snell gets 30 carries for a second straight game that might be a good indication that Kentucky's going to win the game. Don't get fixated on the yardage total. If he logs that many carries it means the chains are moving and Kentucky hasn't given up on something that's a failure.

In the long-term you don't want to have Snell averaging 30 carries a game, but for now it's not a bad strategy. They'll have to play successful ball control offense to win this game and giving Snell that many opportunities to pound away at a Florida defense that has been susceptible to the run is a good idea.

On Monday, Mark Stoops had praise for Sihiem King. That praise was deserved. In very limited opportunities, King still made his presence felt.

“Sihiem did some really good things and we’ve got to get him some more touches," Stoops said. "He’s going to get some more opportunities.”

In this game against the Gators, however, it's likely that Snell is again going to be a workhorse.

How can you measure the impact of mindset and momentum in this game?

As I watched the Florida-Tennessee game's finish on Saturday, I couldn't help but ask myself: "What's the best and worse case scenario for Kentucky here?" Mark Stoops has talked about his team needing to worry about themselves, but we can speculate... Was it a good thing that Florida beat Tennessee? Would they have been angry and hungry or demoralized had they lost that game and started 0-2?

As it happened, I'm of the belief that the Hail Mary, walk-off win was probably the best-case scenario...for Florida. It was an emotional finish that provided the kind of adrenaline-powered send off from the Swamp that's likely to give the team some confidence going into Lexington.

RELATED: Kentucky aims to unleash 30 years of frustration

However, Kentucky's riding a serious momentum wave following South Carolina, too.

But at the end of the day I don't think either of these momentum measurements will determine the game. Stoops feels like he has a mentally mature team. Once we get outside of the game's first 5-10 minutes it will be about execution, not hype and not adrenaline.

The talent gap in this game is as narrow as it has ever been during "the streak".

Florida has two five-star starters. Kentucky has one. The Gators are loaded with Rivals250 talent across their two deep, but Kentucky has four-star or high three-star talent in a lot of those spots. The suspensions help Kentucky level the playing field in the talent category, no doubt, but Florida does not have an overwhelming talent advantage in this game. In fact, I would tentatively give Kentucky the edge at quarterback, running back, tight end, the offensive line and linebacker. Frankly, Kentucky has been better up the middle on the defensive line, too, but we'll see how long that holds up.

Add Jarren Williams to the expected visitor list.

The Cats' four-star quarterback commitment told Cats Illustrated on Monday that he is planning to be in Lexington this weekend. That's very good news. It would be very premature to take Williams' decision to "listen" to South Carolina, Alabama and LSU and start assuming the worst. Nonetheless, getting Williams to Lexington when there will be (yes, there will be) a sell out, an SEC-worthy game night atmosphere and a huge game for the program....Well, it will be huge.

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