September 17th, 2015

Reed: This could be UK's year vs. Gators

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Reed: This could be UK's year vs. Gators
The Cats haven’t beaten Florida in football since 1986, but Patrick Towles gives them a good shot / photo and cover photo from UK football Facebook page

It’s absurd that any major college football team should beat a fellow conference member for 28 consecutive seasons, but that’s what Florida has done to Kentucky. The Wildcats’ last victory in the, ah, rivalry came on Nov. 15, 1986, in Commonwealth Stadium, the very place the two programs will collide Saturday.

I can’t remember if I covered that game or not. I was still sports editor of The Courier-Journal at the time, but I could have been covering another football game or even a basketball game. There was nothing particularly compelling about a 5-4 Florida team meeting a 4-3-1 UK squad.

The final score – UK 10, Florida 3 – indicates it was a pedestrian game. A check of the archives reveals the weather was overcast and cool and that Wildcat quarterback Bill Ransdell befuddled the Gators with 20 pass completions in 23 attempts.

But nobody could have possibly envisioned that UK wouldn’t beat Florida again for 28 years and counting. At the time, you see, the Gators were the Southeastern Conference’s most glaring underachievers. Would you believe that UK won 16 of the first 30 meetings between the schools?

Heck, when Florida beat UK in Commonwealth in 1984, it clinched the Gators’ first-ever SEC title, and never mind that it was later nullified by a myriad of NCAA rules violations committed during the era of Charley Pell, who played at Alabama under Bear Bryant and was a UK assistant during the Charlie Bradshaw era.

Back then, believe it or not, Florida was not the fertile football recruiting state that it is now. Florida was a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC. Florida State and Miami were so-so independents. In 1972, when UK hired Fran Curci from Miami, Curci told me football would never be big in Florida because the warm weather gave the kids so many other options.

I am not making that up.

But what happened was that in 1970, Florida hired alumnus Steve Spurrier, who had won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as the Gators’ quarterback; in 1976, Florida State brought in Bobby Bowden; and in 1978, Miami hired Howard Schnellenberger, the former UK star who had become a respected assistant to Bryant at Alabama and Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins.

The rest is history. Those three coaches turned Florida into arguably the best football state in the nation. Almost every major head coach east of the Mississippi River came to Florida hoping to scoop up some of the leftovers after the Big Three had taken their pick.

Do you realize how long 28 years is?

The last time UK beat Florida in football, Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president. There was no such thing as a smart phone, Twitter, Facebook or Miley Cyrus. Donald Trump was just starting to annoy us. Newspapers and magazines were still strong. The song of the year was “We Are The World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

You get the idea.

Of Florida’s 28 consecutive wins over UK, the most lopsided was the 73-7 humiliation that Spurrier piled on Wildcats coach Bill Curry in 1994. That came only a year after the Cats seemed to have the Gators beaten in Commonwealth, only to see quarterback Danny Wuerffel, an eventual Heisman winner, hit Chris Doering with a 28-yard TD pass in the closing seconds.

That turned an apparent UK victory into a 24-20 loss. It is, arguably, the most important game in the Curry era. Had the Wildcats hung on to win, it would have done wonders for the program’s image and the team’s confidence. Alas, however, Curry was fired in 1996 after seven non-winning seasons.

(Aside: Did you know that actress Faye Dunaway was a Florida student? I didn’t think so.)

But now, finally, it’s time for the streak to end. Off to a 2-0 start, including a road win at South Carolina, the Cats are beginning to realize the fruits of coach Mark Stoops’ solid recruiting efforts. And the Florida that will show up in Commonwealth on Saturday is a team to be respected, but not feared. In other words, the Gators are decidedly vulnerable.

In order to make history, the Cats need to play four solid quarters. In their first two games, they’ve been brilliant in the first half, taking commanding leads into the locker room at intermission. But then they sent a different team out for the second half. At least, that’s what it seems. Against both Louisiana-Lafayette and South Carolina, they’ve staggered through the second half like a couple of end zone drunks, barely holding on to win.

On Saturday, however, the law of averages, which has been missing in action, will finally kick in. If karma does not side with UK now, it never will.  So I fully expect Patrick Towles to be every bit as good as Bill Ransdell was in 1986, and I don’t think I’m guilty of just wishful thinking.

Look at it like this: If Wisconsin can stop the UK basketball team’s record at 38 straight wins, surely the Wildcats’ football squad can end Florida’s domination at 28 years. It says here that Lady Luck will show up in blue sequins. Make the final score UK 35, Florida 31.

 

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