THE STAKES: What's on the line when Kentucky hosts No. 20 Florida?

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Over the years since Kentucky last defeated Florida, and there are a lot of years that time period, several meetings have held high stakes for the two programs.

But this year's meeting between the Cats and Gators is more meaningful than most others have been, at least for Kentucky.

Cats Illustrated takes a look at what's on the line Saturday night at Kroger Field.

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The game has real ramifications in the SEC East race

Does this Kentucky team really have what it takes to mount a push for Atlanta? We'll find out over the next couple of months but what's important right now is that Kentucky is 1-0 with that one win coming in a hostile road atmosphere. Many believed "at South Carolina" would be one of the tougher conference games on Kentucky's schedule. Even though the Gamecocks probably aren't as formidable as some imagined, Kentucky set itself up well with a conference play-opening win in Columbia.

Here's the point: If Kentucky starts the SEC slate 2-0, with those wins over the Gators and Gamecocks, that would instantly move them close to front runner status in the race for Atlanta, along with Georgia.

So long as the streak lives, negative perceptions will persist

Mark Stoops got his "signature win" on November 26th, 2016, when his Cats knocked off archrival Louisville in the program's first win over Bobby Petrino at Louisville and, more significantly, a nationally-recognized take down of the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. Nonetheless, beating the Gators would be a perception-changing win for many. The series would still be incredibly lopsided over a long period of time, but so long as the Florida streak lives, the program's detractors will always have that to fall back on....and can you really blame them?

A spot in the Top 25 is there for the taking

Kentucky is 34th in the new AP poll (11 votes) and 33rd in the new Coaches poll (18 votes). Putting aside the curious fact that South Carolina was 27th in the AP poll with a 2-0 record and Kentucky is several spots lower as a 3-0 team that just won in Columbia, a win over the Gators would very likely catapult the Cats into the Top 25 for the first time in a long time.

Cracking the national rankings and breaking the streak at the same time would do wonders for changing perceptions and creating some buzz for Kentucky at the national level.

It's a huge recruiting weekend

Cats Illustrated is already putting together an impressive unofficial but comprehensive list of football recruits who are expected to be in attendance (you can read that list here).

Kentucky has had several big recruiting weekends in Lexington since Mark Stoops arrived. Think about the Florida game in 2015 (a 14-9 Gators win) and last year's game against Georgia (a 27-24 Bulldog win). The fan atmosphere at those games was impressive and for that reason the losses didn't really hurt the Cats' recruiting momentum. But on that stage, with that opponent, and this expected crowd of recruits, a win over the Gators would be huge for UK's efforts to close the 2018 class strong and build the 2019 class.

Florida recruits will notice

Kentucky has never been as much a factor for South Florida recruits as the program is right now. Eddie Gran and Lamar Thomas are blazing trails in that part of the state and Darin Hinshaw has, with less fanfare but real success, done a fantastic job in the Central Florida region.

UK has kept most of its Florida commitments on board, but beating the Gators is something that will make that easier going forward. It would also get UK's foot in the door with more players in the state who are always watching the Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes on a week to week basis.

4-0 could easily turn into 6-0

If Kentucky beats Florida then the Cats will become heavy favorites to move to 6-0, basically uncharted territory for the program in the memories of current fans. Eastern Michigan would be next, followed by a floundering and apparently woefully inept Missouri team, with both those games in Lexington.

To top it off, UK would then get a bye before going on the road to Starkville.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, but it's tough to overstate the significance of this week's Florida game.

UK can still have a successful season even if they lose to the Gators, but at some point this game has to go their way for the program to really turn the corner.

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