The bowl action on New Year’s Eve gets started with an ACC-SEC Showdown in the Belk Bowl as the Virginia Tech Hokies take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Kickoff is set for noon EST on Tuesday, December 31 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Fans can watch the game on ESPN.
According to this year’s college football bowl game odds, the Hokies are 3-point favorites over Kentucky. The game also has an over/under of 47.5 points.
Unlike last year, Virginia Tech had no problem keeping their bowl streak, which now sits at 27 straight years, intact. After starting the year 2-2, the Hokies went on a hot streak, winning six of their next seven games. However, they did see their long winning streak against in-state rival Virginia come to an end in the season finale. That loss kept Virginia Tech from winning the ACC Coastal Division and playing in the conference championship game.
Despite the disappointing loss to Virginia, the Hokies finished the season 8-4, which is an improvement from last year’s 6-7 season and should keep Justin Fuente off the hot seat for the time being. Of course, while this is Tech’s 27th straight bowl game, the Hokies are just 12-14 in bowls during that span, including losses in each of the last two years. However, Virginia Tech’s last bowl win came the last time they were in the Belk Bowl in 2016.
As for Kentucky, they are bowling for the fourth straight season under Mark Stoops. The Wildcats endured a tough stretch during the middle of the season, including a three-game losing streak. But they won three in a row and four of their last five games to finish the season, ultimately finishing 7-5, a decent follow up to last year’s 10-win campaign.
Of course, success in bowl games has been hard to come by for Kentucky. The Cats surprised Penn State with a win in last year’s Citrus Bowl, snapping a run of four straight bowl losses. But Kentucky is just 4-7 in their last 11 bowl games and hasn’t won a bowl in back-to-back years in over a decade.
Balance is the name of the game with this bowl game. Virginia Tech has it and Kentucky doesn’t. In a bowl game when both teams have several weeks to prepare, the team that has more balance and can beat you in multiple ways has the best chance. I have little doubt that Virginia Tech is that team in this matchup. With the spread at just three points, I’ll eat the points and lean toward the Hokies to cover.
There’s no denying that it was a weird year for the Kentucky offense. They lost starting quarterback Terry Wilson to injury early in the season and struggled to find a replacement. Eventually, the Wildcats went with wide receiver Lynn Bowden as their quarterback. Bowden didn’t do much passing, but he was a beast running the ball. In fact, he finished the regular season as the team’s leading rusher and receiver. Obviously, it was an unorthodox approach, but the Wildcats found a way to make it work well enough to qualify for a bowl game.
Kentucky’s problem is that the Virginia Tech defense knows what’s coming and they’ve had weeks to get ready to face it. Bowden threw the ball 10 times or less during Kentucky’s final five games of the season. When he did, it was more out of necessity and he wasn’t all that effective. The Wildcats will mix in Sawyer Smith, who’s more of a traditional pocket passer. But like Bowden, he also completed less than 50% of his passes on the season.
To be fair, Bowden running the “Wildcat” offense for the Wildcats was effective at times. He ended up with over 1,200 yards, averaging better than eight yards per carry. The running back trio of Asim Rose, Kavosley Smoke, and Christopher Rodriguez was also productive. However, Kentucky also benefited from facing some dreadful defensive teams down the stretch, including Vanderbilt and an FCS opponent.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, held four of their final five opponents to 21 points or less. That includes a pair of shutouts against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, another run-heavy team that could serve as good preparation for facing Kentucky. Unless the Wildcats suddenly become a proficient passing team, the Hokies should have a good idea of what to expect from the UK offense. Longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster should have a good plan for how to stop it.
Odds are, the Wildcats are going to lean heavily on their defense to keep them in this game. Of course, Kentucky allowed no more than 21 points over their final six games, so they are tough defensively. That being said, Hendon Hooker changed the VTU offense after taking over as the starter midseason, averaging better than 10 yards per pass attempt. The Hokies are just good enough running the ball to open it up for Hooker down the field. After the switch to Hooker at quarterback, the Hokies averaged close to 35 points per game.
All things considered, the Wildcats face a tall task in this game. Virginia Tech has a more balanced and explosive offense. Meanwhile, the Kentucky offense will have to find a way to be effective despite being predictable. I don’t think that’s a great combination, so I’ll swallow the three points and bank on the Hokies covering the spread.