There is something different about practice this week at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility. Kentucky sits at 4-0 on the year, 1-0 to open SEC play. But week five brings out a new beast for the Wildcats in Lexington.
It’s Florida game week — Kentucky’s first real test of the season. And the pads have been popping because of it, a new level of energy and physicality with each whistle.
“You can already see that in practice. The coaches are doing a tremendous job emphasizing the physicality that we need to bring for this game,” veteran tight end Brenden Bates said Tuesday. “Practice is extremely physical and my skull is throbbing, but it’s feeling great. I’m ready to roll.”
Kentucky has won back-to-back matchups in the series and three of the last five dating back to 2018. The history was what it was, but the modern rivalry between the Wildcats and Gators is different.
“We have an interesting rivalry with Florida, so every time we get to play them, we just bring it in practice every time,” Bates said. “I’m sure what they’re telling them over there is Kentucky is going to bring it and that’s kind of the standard here.”
“It’s kind of grown into a really important game for us,” senior lineman Eli Cox added. “Every SEC East game, those divisional games are just so important. It was great to start off on the right foot last week and we are looking to improve to 2-0.”
Kentucky is fired up and bringing the juice
Kentucky won down in the Swamp last season by a final score of 26-16 in Billy Napier’s first year as head coach. And then before that, a 20-13 victory for the home team in Lexington, ultimately leading to the firing of former coach Dan Mullen.
The Gators will be looking for revenge and their first win at Kroger Field since 2019. And the Wildcats are prepared.
“Florida has always had a good defense. This year, their D-line is big and physical. Every time we play Florida, we’re always gonna bring the fire, bring the juice, bring the physicality every practice,” Bates said. “I don’t think we’re really looking at it much differently, we’re just looking at it as, ‘We’re about to play Florida.’ Everyone’s fired up. Everyone’s got to bring the juice.”
Games like this one are why players like Eli Cox stay home and play for Kentucky. The Nicholasville native has played a lot of college football over the course of his five years in Lexington, racking up 34 games with 26 starts. He’s done it all, taking the bumps and bruises that come with playing high-level football to suit up in games like this one.
For him, there’s nothing like it.
“These are the types of games you come to Kentucky to play in. You get a top-ranked SEC team at home, you couldn’t ask for much more,” Cox said. “They’re going to do a lot, SEC defenses are very talented, Florida has a very talented front. They bring a lot of different looks and make you block it right and block it well.”
Running back an all-time win against the Gators in ’21
Offensive coordinator Liam Coen remembers what it was like being a part of that win at Kroger Field during his first season with the Wildcats back in 2021. Now back in Lexington after a one-year hiatus with the Los Angeles Rams, he’s ready to run it back on Saturday afternoon — hopefully with the same result.
“Two years ago, the Florida atmosphere was electric, right? I mean, that was one of the coolest games I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “To see Kroger Field rock like that, the people, the Cat Walk, just the whole thing. The whole experience was electric and I fully anticipate it being the same way.
“I know our players are excited and we know Florida will be ready to play. It’ll be a great SEC football game.”