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Different kind of test awaiting Cats in The Swamp

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Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith has thrown for 986 yards and eight touchdowns through three games in 2012. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith has thrown for 986 yards and eight touchdowns through three games in 2012. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Collins Ukwu is one of a handful of Wildcats to see extensive action the last time Kentucky traveled to Gainesville, Fla., to face the Florida Gators.

The senior defensive end tied for the team lead with six tackles in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that September evening. He remembers well the venue recognized almost unanimously as one of the hardest on road teams in the nation. He knows about the Gator chomps and the fans seated so close to the visiting sideline they can be heard loud and clear.

Ukwu and the Cats may have fallen that day, but he isn't intimidated by the idea of going back into the building known commonly as "The Swamp." In fact, he looks forward to it.

"It's a great football atmosphere," Ukwu said. "It's probably one of the best places I've played at since I've been in school here. It's just one those places that you always want to play. Personally, I like going to away games. I don't know why. I just like it for some reason."

Almost exactly two years later, Ukwu will get to make that return trip, as Kentucky (1-2, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) will head south to take on No. 14 Florida (3-0, 2-0 SEC) on Saturday at 12:21 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. Having lost two of three games, the Wildcats sense an opportunity in front of them. A win would inject a sense of momentum into the season and put the Cats back on track to their goal of reaching a bowl game.

"Games that we should have won, we didn't take advantage of those," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "Now, we got to really take advantage of this Florida game."

To do that, UK will have to overcome a Gator squad off to an impressive start.

Florida entered this season under second-year head coach Will Muschamp with plenty of question marks. The Gators were on the fringes of preseason top-25 polls and the doubts were only reinforced after an underwhelming performance in a 27-14 win at home against Bowling Green. The last two weeks, Florida has looked an entirely different kind of team, pulling off back-to-back SEC road wins over Texas A&M and Tennessee. Most recently, Florida exploded for 555 yards in a 37-20 win over the previously unbeaten Volunteers.

"They're really, really good," quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "They've already proven it. They beat a really good Tennessee team. They beat Texas A&M, who looks really good as well. If we can go down in The Swamp and beat them, that would really be something special."

If you listen to UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter, Smith may even be selling the Gators short, at least offensively. He likens Florida to an even scarier version of a team that's had one of the best offenses in football over the last decade.

"On down through the years, I used to watch Boise State as a spectator and I would say, 'Man, that is really one of the better offenses I've ever seen,' " Minter said. "I'm talking execution, diversity, razzle dazzle. Well that's now what it is. It's Boise State offense with really fast players."

After splitting time in the opener, quarterback Jeff Driskel has taken over full-time at the position, and the offense has thrived under him. He has thrown just 36 combined passes the last two games, relying on a dangerous ground attack under first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease that features running back Mike Gillislee, the SEC's leading rusher.

In addition to an effective power running game, Florida still features plenty of the speed the Gators have come to be known for. In particular, UK fans will remember Trey Burton, the player who takes snaps in the Wildcat formation for Florida. He scored a record six touchdowns two years ago against Kentucky and had another effective day last week against Tennessee, carrying the ball three times for 80 yards and two touchdowns.

"They're very diverse, much more so than what I remember in the past, so the challenges are great," Minter said. "But we got to get out there and see what we can do."

There will be similar chances for the Kentucky offense, but the Wildcats have a different weapon in their arsenal from the last time they were in Gainesville. UK's no-huddle offense has rolled up over 400 yards a game, including 322.0 through the air. Smith has a number of options at his disposal and an offensive style that Joker Phillips believes will make it easier to operate in a hostile environment.

"(The no-huddle offense) definitely helps because you got more time to operate at the line of scrimmage," Phillips said. "There's not a of verbal communication. Everything's hand signals from the line of scrimmage."

Instead of Smith having to spend time getting his teammates to the line and relaying calls to them, each of UK's position players looks to the sideline and receives the call simultaneously.

"Max doesn't have to tell the running back," Phillips said. "He doesn't have to tell the receivers. The receivers know all the signals."

Taking things a step further, the fast-paced offense presents challenges for the defense. As games have worn on, the Cats' attack has gained steam as opposing defenses are unable to substitute freely. Moreover, the new offense allows UK to dictate the game's tempo.

"That's the idea with the no huddle, that we have all those different modes that we can play," Phillips said. "We can play fast-paced, we can play a mode where we can get up and look over to the sideline and we can do them all in the same series."

The next big challenge for the Cats - other than facing the athletic Gators - is getting the offense going from the opening kickoff. UK has been outscored 18-0 in the first quarter so far this season, falling behind early in all three games. Responding to those struggles, Phillips has switched up the way Kentucky opens practice with an intense 11 vs. 11 session just a few minutes in.

A good start would surely be crucial as Kentucky looks to end a 25-game losing streak at the hands of Florida - the longest active streak among major conference opponents. The streak may be daunting, but the Cats are just 10 months removed from ending an even longer one against Tennessee.

"Anything can happen," said tailback Jonathan George, who is expected to start in place of CoShik Williams on Saturday. "When you play hard and you know that you can win, I feel like good things come out of it."

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