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Resetting Florida Gators expectations after Utah, with No. 20 Kentucky next

Preseason projections of a fourth-place finish in the East by this writer and Dan Mullen look a little silly now.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Desmond Watson, an Armwood High alumnus, and his teammates had much to celebrate last week.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Desmond Watson, an Armwood High alumnus, and his teammates had much to celebrate last week. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Sep. 9|Updated Sep. 9

GAINESVILLE — The No. 12 Florida Gators enter Saturday’s SEC opener where few people expected them to be in the preseason.

Undefeated, nationally ranked and favored to beat No. 20 Kentucky.

The naysayers included oddsmakers in Vegas, the assembled wisdom at SEC media days and former coach Dan Mullen, who picked them to finish fourth in the East — a prediction that made its way to his old locker room.

“Oh yeah,” center Kingsley Eguakun told reporters this week. “For sure.”

Related: Are Florida, Florida State, Miami back after Week 1 wins? No, but...

That prognostication may still prove correct, depending on what happens at Saturday’s sold-out SEC opener and beyond. But it looks much, much less likely now. The Gators’ Week 1 upset of Utah has caused short-term and long-term expectations to spike.

Preseason skepticism was understandable with Billy Napier’s staff jumping from the Sun Belt to the SEC and the inexperience of quarterback Anthony Richardson. Mullen’s unspectacular recruiting classes didn’t help.

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson had one of the best performances by any player in the nation in Week 1.
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson had one of the best performances by any player in the nation in Week 1. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

But if Week 1 is any indication, the concerns were overblown. The receivers were solid, and the defense has improved. Though the Gators’ talent isn’t elite, it’s not awful, either. Only 10 teams have more blue-chip recruits, and only a few of those (Alabama, Ohio State, maybe Texas) have a quarterback like Richardson.

Related: How Florida Gators’ Anthony Richardson compares to Vince Young and Tim Tebow

“The cupboard wasn’t bare here when Dan Mullen left,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said after his team’s final-minute loss. “They have some great players, especially the quarterback. If they can keep him healthy, they are going to win a lot of games.”

That if is still a concern. Richardson spent the winter recovering from knee surgery and missed time last year with a concussion. We don’t know whether he’ll make it through a full season.

But if he does, Whittingham is right. The ceiling looks much higher now than it did a week ago.

How high? That depends on what happens Saturday.

The Wildcats had a sluggish start against Miami (Ohio) but remain solid. A win would move coach Mark Stoops past the legendary Bear Bryant for the most in program history (61).

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has beaten the Gators in two of their last four matchups.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has beaten the Gators in two of their last four matchups. [ ALEX SLITZ | Lexington Herald-Leader (2018) ]

Kentucky, like Utah, has a talented, mobile quarterback. Will Levis has drawn first-round hype; Napier called him “phenomenal.”

The Wildcats have beaten Florida in two of their last four meetings and nearly won in 2017 and ‘19, too. They are, without question, good enough to beat the Gators if the Gators don’t improve from last week.

“Obviously, very proud of our team,” Napier said, “but man, we’ve got a lot of crap to fix.”

Utah pounded the defense in the second half. Much of the credit goes to the Utes, who grind down almost every opponent. But Napier said UF needs to do a better job with alignment, communication, fundamentals and eye discipline to make sure Kentucky and future teams don’t replicate Utah’s success.

One of Napier’s other main concerns is how his team will respond after a taste of success.

“I think that’s the big question,” Napier said Monday. “How is this group of players and this staff going to handle everybody patting them on the back for the next week?”

Florida coach Billy Napier won't know how his Gators react to success until this weekend.
Florida coach Billy Napier won't know how his Gators react to success until this weekend. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

Napier said he won’t know the answer until Saturday night. If the Gators handle things well, it’s easy to see his first season ending in a nice bowl appearance. Though No. 2 Georgia and No. 6 Texas A&M seem to be a notch above Florida, the Gators should at least be competitive in every other game — including at No. 24 Tennessee at the end of the month and at Florida State in the Black Friday finale.

The Gators might not win them all. But they can do enough to prove to oddsmakers, fans, recruits and a certain former coach that this staff’s rebuilding job is ahead of schedule.

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