By Mike Brandes – OnlyGators.com Contributor
After a pair of seemingly “cupcake” games against Idaho and Eastern Michigan, Florida Gators football begins Southeastern Conference play in 2014 against an improving Kentucky Wildcats team before it faces arguably its biggest test of the year on the road at the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Florida kicks things off against Kentucky under the lights at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m. in a game that will air live on the SEC Network.
|FLORIDA GATORS||KENTUCKY WILDCATS|
|Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4)||Head Coach: Mark Stoops (Year: 2)|
|2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5)||2013 Record: 2-10 (0-8)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
|Common Opponents: 1-4||Common Opponents: 0-5|
|Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)||Scoring Offense: 107th (20.5 ppg)|
|Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg)||Scoring Defense: 89th (31.2 ppg)|
The Gators have won 26-straight games against the Wildcats dating back to 1987, including a 24-7 thumping last year in Lexington, Kentucky. It is now Florida’s longest remaining winning streak against a single opponent as UF saw one against Vanderbilt end last season.
Stoops, the brother of former Gators defensive coordinator and current Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, will be in his second season leading the Wildcats and hopes to improve on 2013 in which the program continued to struggle. Kentucky’s fan support has skyrocketed and expectations are higher than they have been in years.
Who’s Coming Back?
The Wildcats return junior quarterback Maxwell Smith, who led the team in passing with 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns while only throwing one interception. He played in nine contests and earned four starts, with his lone pick coming against UF. Smith is looking forward to bouncing back healthy in the fall after offseason shoulder surgery sidelined him all spring.
Kentucky’s signal caller should feel comfortable throwing the ball with senior wide receiver Javess Blue, UK’s leading pass catcher last year, coming back to school. Blue snagged 43 balls for 586 yards and trotted in for four scores, ranking him 14th in the SEC in receptions per game and 15th for receiving yards per contest. Blue managed just three catches for 16 years against Florida.
UK should make some gains in its ability to edge rush with three ends – Alvin “Bud” Dupree, Za’Darious Smith and Jason Hatcher – all coming back. Dupree and Smith combined for 13 sacks and 120 tackles, while Hatcher is starting to come into his own and could blossom in his second season.
Though the Wildcats return most of their starters on both sides of the ball, the departures of defensive lineman Donte Rumph and linebacker Avery Williamson will be a factor for a rebuilding defense.
Rumph recorded 47 tackles (six for loss) and two sacks for Kentucky last fall. Williamson tallied 102 tackles (four for loss), a sack and three quarterback hurries, proving to be a daunting presence for the Wildcats. He also recovered two of the 12 fumbles that UK picked up all season.
It’s hard to determine for certain exactly Kentucky’s offense will look like as the situation at quarterback has yet to be completely resolved. Though Smith is returning to lead the attack, there is competition from Patrick Towles and Drew Barker with the former having an impressive spring while Smith was sidelined.
The Wildcats will be looking for increased production from a group of experienced rushers, including a Nebraska transfer, and better coverage from its returning secondary. A.J. Stamps, a junior college transfer who excelled during spring practice, should help sure up the back end of the defense.
Kentucky and Florida both compete in the SEC East but did not square off against any common opponents in cross-division or non-conference play. The Wildcats went winless in the SEC in 2013, and therefore without a division victory either, while the Gators picked up a victory against Tennessee during the fourth week of the season.
Last Time Out
UF moved the ball with tremendous ease in its meeting with UK last year as then-sophomore RB Matt Jones rumbled to 176 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries. Second-string QB Tyler Murphy added 41 yards on seven carries and rushed for a score, complimenting his ground attack with 156 passing yards and a touchdown pass.
Florida also gave Kentucky fits defensively, totaling five sacks (four on Smith) and eight tackles for loss. The Gators held the Wildcats to just 173 total yards with UK averaging 3.7 yards per play to UF’s 6.4.
One week after dealing with Kentucky and concluding a three-game home stand to open the season, Florida will play its first of back-to-back road games (with a bye week in between) against Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 20 at a yet-to-be-announced time. Finishing the 2013 season ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25, the Tide ran through 10 of its first 11 regular-season opponents – they fought hard for a 49-42 victory over Texas A&M – before dropping their final two games of the campaign. Alabama fell 34-28 to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, eliminating itself from the SEC Championship and final BCS Championship by allowing the now-infamous “kick-six,” and dropped a “consolation game” 45-31 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
|FLORIDA GATORS||ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE|
|Head Coach: Will Muschamp (Year: 4)||Head Coach: Nick Saban (Year: 8)|
|2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5)||2013 Record: 11-2 (11-1)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
|Common Opponents: 2-1||Common Opponents: 3-0|
|Scoring Offense: T-112th (18.8 ppg)||Scoring Offense: 17th (38.2 ppg)|
|Scoring Defense: 15th (21.1 ppg)||Scoring Defense: 4th (13.9 ppg)|
Alabama lost its fair share of players to graduation and the NFL Draft, but guess what? In comes the nation’s No. 1 rated recruiting class, including 26 players, six of which are five-star prospects…double any of the next three teams in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings (Alabama, Florida State, Texas A&M).
Among the fresh faces fans will come to know donning crimson next season are athlete Bo Scarbrough, DE Da’Shawn Hand and linebacker Christian Miller, a one-time Florida commit out of South Carolina. The Tide have reloaded once again and will look to complement their veterans with highly-touted freshmen, many of which will be able to make an impact right away.
Who’s Coming Back?
Alabama returns eight starters on offense and five on defense but none more critical to the team’s success in 2014 than its impressive stable of rushers in T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry. The trio combined for 2,311 yards on 334 carries with 25 touchdowns in 2013. Yeldon received the lion’s share of the work last fall, scampering for 1,235 yards on 207 carries with 14 scores on his own. The Tide will look to use their backfield depth to wear down opponents, making gains with their physical run game while wearing down opponents and reducing pressure on their new quarterback, either Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or senior Blake Simms.
Whether Coker or Simms is behind center, Alabama has three stellar targets out wide in Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White, a trio that combined for 1,619 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013.
Sophomore DE A’Shawn Robinson actually led the way with 5.5 sacks as a freshmen and should come into his own even more in year two, especially next to senior defensive tackle Brandon Ivory. UA is also happy to have junior safety Landon Collins back as he is the team’s lone returning starter in the secondary. He will look to hold things down as his teammates, some experienced backups, get a handle on their new roles.
For the first time in three seasons, the Tide will start a season without A.J. McCarron at quarterback. McCarron amassed over 9,000 yards passing in four seasons at Alabama, completing 66.8 percent of his passes. That’s all not to mention the national and league titles he helped lead the Crimson Tide to throughout his career, all while compiling a remarkable 37-4 record as a starter.
On the other side of the Ball, Alabama lost six defenders to the 2014 NFL Draft including LB C.J. Mosely, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, DE Ed Stinson, LB Adrian Hubbard, DE Jeoffrey Pagan and S Vinnie Sunseri. These six players combined for 289 tackles (24.5 for loss), 7.5 sacks and four interceptions, causing chaos and terrorizing opposing offenses during the 2013 campaign.
Alabama added former USC and Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin this spring as Saban’s new offensive coordinator. Though Kiffin did not enjoy tremendous success as the man in charge, netting a 36-26 record in four-plus seasons, he has been lauded as the architect of some impressive offenses, including the historic 2005 Trojans attack. As a coordinator at USC under Pete Carroll, Kiffin helped the Trojans compile a 23-3 record.
Though incredibly talented and full of talented NFL prospects, UA’s defense has not had tremendous success in stopping spread offenses. It gave up an average of 483 yards per game last year to Auburn, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, nearly 200 more than their season average of 286 yards per contest. Florida will look to take advantage of this with its new attack under offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, though chances are Saban has spent the entire offseason trying to fortify his scheme against the spread.
Alabama handled the common SEC East opponents it had in common with Florida last season, posting 45 points each against Kentucky and Tennessee while only allowing the teams to combine for 13 points in those two games. UA also roughed up a then-ranked No. 10 LSU 38-17, while the Gators fell to their permanent cross-division opponent 17-6.
Last Time Out
Florida and Alabama last squared off in 2011 when the Crimson Tide upended the Gators 38-10 in front of the second-largest home crowd in school history (90,888).
UF started strong with QB John Brantley looking poised in the first quarter. Things unraveled for Florida in the second quarter, however, when Brantley threw a 45-yard pick-six early in the quarter and got knocked out for the game before halftime. Alabama scored 35 unanswered points after UF led 10-3.
The Gators have the opportunity to defeat the Crimson Tide for the first time since the 2008 SEC Championship, when UF pulled off a 31-20 victory over UA to win the league crown and advance to the national title game.