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Humble Wildcats head for Florida

Ricky Lumpkin hasn't bothered to take a
glimpse at the Top 25 polls this season, so it's not surprising the
Kentucky senior defensive tackle isn't concerned about whether the
undefeated Wildcats are getting any respect.
Though Kentucky has handled Louisville, Western Kentucky and
Akron by an average of 26 points, the Wildcats have failed to
receive a single vote in the poll.
Where some might see disrespect, Lumpkin sees reality.
The Cardinals, Hilltoppers and Zips are a combined 1-8. If
Kentucky wants to get the nation's attention, Lumpkin knows there's
an easy way to do it: Beat No. 9 Florida (3-0) on Saturday.
"The way you get up into (the polls) is beating teams like
Florida, go into Ole Miss and show people you can win on the road
in the SEC," Lumpkin said. "Then you'll get the whole Top
25-ranking thing."
It's a refrain repeated by Lumpkin's teammates, perhaps a sign
of how times are changing at Kentucky. A few years ago, starting
the season with a three-game winning streak regardless of the
competition was cause for celebration.
This year, it's been met with a yawn. The Wildcats have won the
first quarter of their season but know they'll be defined by what
they do the rest of the way. They'll start against a program they
haven't beaten since before any of the players on the current
roster were born.
Kentucky's lost 23 straight to the Gators, one of the infamous
streaks former coach Rich Brooks said needed to be stopped before
the Wildcats could honestly say they're moving up in the nation's
toughest conference.
"It's something that everyone wants to here, you want to end
these streaks," Lumpkin said. "If you end a streak here, you'll
go down forever in history."
Too often against the Gators, the games have ended in infamy.
Florida has used Kentucky as its own personal plaything over the
years. Only five of the games have been decided by a touchdown or
less. Last year's 41-7 Florida win followed a familiar refrain: the
Wildcats self-destructed early and spent the rest of the game
trying - and failing - to catch up.
"You've got to keep your head," Lumpkin said. "Florida's one
of those places, things can get away from you pretty quickly."
Staying cool is one thing the Wildcats have been able to do with
relative ease during the first three weeks of the season. They've
been largely unchallenged and shown a capacity to score points in
bunches. Kentucky ranks second behind No. 1 Alabama in the SEC in
scoring, putting up 44.3 points per game.
And they're doing it without turning the ball over. The Wildcats
have snapped the ball 178 times this year without giving it away.
It's something they'll have to continue against the Gators, who
lead the SEC in turnover margin.
Yet the Wildcats have put up those eye-popping numbers against
mostly overmatched competition. Louisville is rebuilding. Western
Kentucky is taking baby steps at the FBS level and Akron was coming
off a loss to Gardner-Webb.
Florida is Florida.
It's why the Wildcats haven't gotten carried away with
themselves despite their solid start. Even chatty running back
Derrick Locke, who put up a career-high 166 yards against the Zips,
is remaining humble, or at least as humble as he can manage.
Head coach Joker Phillips gave most of the credit to the quiet
leadership of junior star Randall Cobb and quarterback Mike
Hartline.
The Wildcats didn't get too high on themselves even after
winning their final three SEC road games a year ago. They're not
going to do it after beating three teams they know they were
supposed to handle with ease.
"Every time we get on the bus we talk about it being a business
trip, a business trip," Phillips said. "It's not a slumber
party."
Maybe, but the Wildcats have been asleep at the wheel recently
against the Gators. They trailed by 28 points at the end of the
first quarter in the Swamp two years ago and were down 31-0 at the
end of the opening 15 minutes last season.
"This has got to be our best football game," Phillips said.
"We've got to play for four quarters."
Kentucky hasn't done it yet this season and needed a wake-up
call against Akron to get going. Tied at 3 late in the first
quarter, Phillips became visibly angry after a penalty pushed the
Wildcats to the edge of field goal range.
He called timeout and spent the better part of a minute
reminding his players that lethargic starts won't be tolerated if
the program wants to be considered a legitimate contender in the
nation's toughest conference.
"We know we were just killing ourselves," Hartline said.
They won't need to do that for the Gators to extend the streak
to 24 games. Kentucky is well aware it's best may not be good
enough. Then again, the Wildcats know their best these days is a
little better than it used to be.
"This is a huge challenge for us, but that's what we signed up
for," Phillips said. "That's why we signed up to play at
Kentucky."


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