The Kentucky Wildcats (4-0, 1-0 SEC) are gearing up to defend their flawless record this Saturday evening in front of the home crowd against SEC East foes, the Florida Gators (3-1, 1-0 SEC), at Kroger Field in Lexington, KY.
Historically, this rivalry has been firmly in the grasp of the Gators, with Kentucky being winless in head-to-head matchups between 1986 and 2017. However, things have changed recently, with the Wildcats claiming three victories in the last five meetings against the Gators.
Florida has not lost three in a row against the Wildcats in over 70 years. The leading sportsbooks in the US currently peg them as 1.5-point underdogs this Saturday, so Kentucky has a good chance to break this unfavorable streak.
Let’s take a look into key factors that could tip the scales in Lexington and see which are the best wagers for this important SEC East showdown.
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Leary Needs to Step Up for the Cats
Kentucky Wildcats own a perfect record, but they’ve faced two MAC schools and a non-major Eastern Kentucky in the opening four weeks of the season. They did put 45 points past Vanderbilt in their lone SEC matchup last weekend, but make no mistake, a duel against the Gators will be the toughest challenge so far.
Home fans can’t wait to see Devin Leary and his offensive line going face-to-face with one of the best defensive units in college football. The former NC State quarterback has already thrown five interceptions, the same number he collected during one whole season for his former club in 2021. He has completed less than 60 percent of passes across the opening four games of 2023, and the Cats will need him to step up big-time against the best pass defense in the SEC.
We are expecting to see more action from Kentucky’s leading running back, Ray Davis, who tops the conference in rushing touchdowns with five scores this term. It is worth noting that Davis ran for 122 yards in the previous game against Florida Gators while he was wearing the Vanderbilt Commodores shirt.
Kentucky is 21st in the league in points allowed per game, having conceded 15.5 on average through the opening four games of the season. This comes in with a big caveat, as the Cats have not played a serious rival yet this term.
The Gators are in Great Form
After an inaugural defeat to Utah (11-24), Florida found a way to bounce back and pick up three wins on the spin, including a 29-16 drubbing of the No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers two weeks ago. The Gators are primarily an elite defensive team, but they have shown talent on the opposite end of the scrimmage line on several occasions this season already.
Florida’s offensive unit relies on the run game. They have had at least 35 carries in each of the previous three affairs. The action is split between Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson, the main two options among running backs. The former ran for 172 yards on 23 carries and a TD in an upset win at Tennessee two weeks ago, while the latter is ranked third in the conference in rushing scores per game (3).
That said, Kentucky does defend better on the ground, which is why we expect the ball to be more in the hands of Florida’s signal-caller Graham Mertz. Unlike his colleague on the opposite end, Mertz has had an extraordinary campaign so far in the season, completing as many as 77 percent of his passes with just one interception along the way. Interestingly, the Wildcats had an opportunity to sign Mertz last winter, but they decided to go for Leary, meaning the visiting quarterback will be additionally motivated to prove his worth and shine on Saturday at Kroger Field.
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Best Pick — Florida Moneyline (+100) with DraftKings
The Gators were 3-point underdogs at the start of the week, but the line is halved as we approach the start of the game. It is easy to see why the bettors lean towards Florida in this one based on the performances we have seen from the Gators in the last couple of weeks. The Wildcats have not been properly tested yet, and still, they failed to impress even in commanding wins over low-profile programs. The Cats will struggle to break down one of the best defensive lines in the nation while we trust Graham Mertz to cause Kentucky big problems on the opposite end on Saturday night. We’ll take the Gators’ moneyline all day long at plus odds.
Alternative Pick — Kentucky Under 22.5 Points (-115) with DraftKings
Three of the Gators’ four games this season have gone under 45.5 points. We expect this to be a tight affair with a very slow pace, as both teams have done much better on the defensive end in the season’s early stages. Florida allows 13.5 points per game this term, and the fact they’ve limited Tennessee to just 16 points in Week 3 speaks enough about their defensive prowess. Considering all factors, something special needs to happen for the Wildcats to get more than 20 points in this one.
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