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Kentucky football has changed since ending Florida’s streak. How different are the Gators?

UF had some fatal flaws that doomed them in last year’s historic loss. Have the Gators fixed them heading into Lexington?
Kentucky Wildcats players celebrate after beating Florida 27-16 in the Swamp last season.
Kentucky Wildcats players celebrate after beating Florida 27-16 in the Swamp last season. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 13, 2019

The Kentucky team hosting No. 9 Florida on Saturday night at Kroger Field is not the same one that ended the Gators’ 31-year winning streak last year.

The Wildcats’ top offensive player (running back Benny Snell) is in the NFL. So is their top defensive player (end Josh Allen). Quarterback Terry Wilson hasn’t left but is out for the season with a knee injury.

That all means Kentucky has changed dramatically since its historic 27-16 win in Gainesville a year ago.

But how different are the Gators? The answer will decide not only the outcome of their SEC opener but the outlook for the rest of coach Dan Mullen’s second season.

While Kentucky deserves credit for what happened last year at The Swamp and for finishing with its third 10-win season in school history, the Gators deserve some blame for their fatal flaws, starting with hubris.

Defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson crowed that week that UF’s 31 consecutive wins in the series would “be 32 after Saturday.” Like UF’s guaranteed win over Tennessee in 2016, the cockiness led to the streak’s end.

Other behind-the-scenes issues were festering, too. Mullen didn’t like his team’s physicality, which he traced to poor practice habits.

“We’ve got to learn how to practice every single day,” Mullen said afterward. “I think guys are kind of used to – like practices are a lot more like a walk-through, and they’re not.”

The subpar practices and lack of power on the lines fed into UF’s biggest problem that night: Run defense.

Snell and the Wildcats gashed the Gators for 303 rushing yards — the most UF had allowed in a game since the Georgia Southern embarrassment in 2013.

“It was a terrible feeling,” defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “We didn’t expect (it), but it happened. I mean, it showed us what we needed to improve.”

Florida Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) watches the jumbotron while the final play of the game against Kentucky Wildcats is under review.
Florida Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks (13) watches the jumbotron while the final play of the game against Kentucky Wildcats is under review. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

The Gators began improving those areas immediately.

They responded to that letdown with a five-game win streak (including top-25 victories against LSU and at Mississippi State) that catapulted them to the Peach Bowl.

“We grew a lot from that as a team within our program and where we are,” Mullen said.

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The most tangible difference was in the run game. After giving up 7.4 yards per rush against Kentucky, UF allowed only 3.9 the rest of the season.

For Mullen, the biggest change centered on the knowledge that he and his new staff gained about their personnel. Who should get more snaps? Who deserves fewer? How could coaches put them in the best position to make plays?

And for players, the shocking defeat was a sobering reminder of how they needed to practice and play.

“I think it was an eye opener that we should never take a team lightly, no matter what people say about them or anything…” quarterback Feleipe Franks said.

Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen reacts after a missed field goal call during the third quarter of last year's game against Kentucky.
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen reacts after a missed field goal call during the third quarter of last year's game against Kentucky. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

Or, as Shuler put it: “It showed us that we can be beat.”

And the Gators can be beaten again if those lessons haven’t carried over from last year.

Although UF’s run defense looks strong so far, it hasn’t had a test yet like Kentucky, which ranks in the top 40 in yards per rush (5.3) behind an veteran offensive line.

Last season’s hubris — startling enough after the 4-7 season UF suffered through in 2017 —sounds more like humility now. But it’d be easy to get overly confident against a Kentucky team that’s breaking in a new quarterback (Sawyer Smith) and didn’t look great two weeks ago against Toledo.

And all the practice habits Mullen didn’t like last September? He’s still nitpicking. He cursed during his halftime radio last week because he was upset over small details — improper six-inch steps and angles off by a few degrees.

“They weren’t going to cost us on Saturday night,” Mullen said, “but they will cost you moving forward.”

Maybe even this week, if UF hasn’t learned from its past.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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