A standard SEC supporter’s line headed into any bowl game (that is not part of the College Football Playoff) is that since the league is so superior to all others, its players aren’t interested in trying hard unless they have a shot at the national title. That’s supposedly why UCF was able to beat Auburn in last year’s Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Kentucky’s gridiron revival presents a rare opportunity to get beyond that factor (if it is, in fact, a factor). The Wildcats must be absolutely thrilled to be where they are. Deep down, everyone in Lexington knows that a CFP bid is very unlikely. So as opposed to a depressed and despondent Alabama or LSU roster that thought it might be headed to the 4-team playoff until losing late in the season (a typical set-up for an SEC vs Power-5 bowl on New Year’s Day), the upcoming Citrus Bowl will feature a hungry UK lineup that wants to prove it can play with the big shots.
Motivation is one thing – execution is another. Is Mark Stoops’ team good enough to take down the favored Penn State Nittany Lions in Florida?
The point spread and O/U paint a picture of PSU winning a tight ballgame.
Who: Kentucky Wildcats vs Penn State Nittany Lions
When: Tuesday, January 1st, 1 PM EST
Where: Camping World Stadium, Orlando, FL
Lines: UK (+6.5) vs PSU (-6.5) / O/U Total: (47.5)
Sporting a tremendous edge rush and an offense led by tailback-extraordinaire Benny Snell Jr, the UK Wildcats raced out to a 5-0 opening record and won their first 2 crucial SEC contests in impressive fashion. Florida – which turned out to be absolutely no slouch in 2018 – hosted Kentucky in early September and was stunned 27-16 by the visitors. It was the first time UK had beaten the Gators on the gridiron since Ronald Reagan was in office.
Snell Jr. played a big role in the sudden coup, rushing for 175 yards. Sophomore WR Lynn Bowden Jr. had a big day on the outside and wasn’t finished by a long shot – the Ohio product would later catch 13 passes in a close-shave win over the Missouri Tigers a few days before Halloween.
But it was the Kentucky defense that really turned heads, exposing Florida QB Feleipe Franks with an interception, a forced fumble and less than 50% completions.
Next, the Wildcats held record-setting dual threat QB Nick Fitzgerald of MSU to just 20 yards on the ground, stunting the powerful MSU run game and daring Fitzgerald to pass. The Bulldog signal-caller got to 50% through the air but was intercepted by freshman safety Tyrell Ajian as the Wildcats won 28-7.
It wouldn’t last. Kentucky appeared to run into a wall after the Missouri win. A 5-1 SEC record would soon become 5-3 after a pair of hard-to-swallow division losses.You can make a case that the Kentucky offense – namely the QB position – was the team’s weakness all along. The offensive line wasn’t powerful enough to blow holes in the Georgia defense in the 9th game of the season, and Snell Jr. rushed for less than 100 yards as UK managed less than 3 yards per carry.
But sophomore quarterback Terry Wilson was actually pretty good against the Bulldogs. He only missed on 6 out of 29 throws and did not commit an interception.
Wilson has been a role player for the Wildcats, mostly handing the ball off to Snell Jr. and other talented backs while the defense does the real dirty work. But his arm was handy when the team needed it most against a Top 5 opponent.
Instead, it was the defense that let Kentucky down. The UK front-7 was on skates against the UGA blocking effort, allowing 331 yards rushing in the 34-17 loss. Of course, any backfield with the names “Swift” and “Holyfield” is hard to stop. But any illusions that a resurgent program was ready to take over the SEC East were quickly exposed as just that.
What was more troubling is that the OL couldn’t block Tennessee in the follow-up. In what was easily Kentucky’s worst performance of the year, the ‘Cats visited Knoxville and were blown away 24-7. That’s Tennessee – not Missouri or Auburn or Georgia. The Volunteers would finish the year with a 2-6 conference record and no bowl bid, but raced through the UK defense almost as easily as UGA did.
Kentucky went on to easily handle Middle Tennessee and Louisville in the final 2 scrums. But was the Tennessee loss a product of a discouraged team having a letdown, or evidence that the Wildcats were overrated and didn’t belong among the top 20 teams in college football?
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions had their own gigantic let-down in early November. Having already overcome a 2-game slump in mid-season to remain near the top of the Big Ten East, the squad visited Michigan at “The Big House” and got a Big Beating. Celebrated QB Trace McSorley, fighting injuries, was ineffective in limited action from the pocket and roughed-up on scramble attempts.
Penn State rebounded from its gut-check better than Kentucky did. In the follow-up against Wisconsin, RB Miles Sanders said “who’s SaQuon Barkley?” with a 159-yard performance. McSorley was able to get back in the groove with a near-80% passing day, tying a program record for victories as a starter…a record he would go on to break. Junior DT Robert Windsor was a nearly-unstoppable force on the inside.
PSU held Rutgers and Maryland to a combined 10 points to finish the season at 9-3, equal to the W/L margin Kentucky was able to post.
But in my opinion, Kentucky could be one of the best moneyline-underdog picks of January. While there are several teams in the SEC that could probably match-up well against the UK rushing attack, the failure to block Tennessee wasn’t a product of the injuries sustained by E.J. Price or Drake Jackson on the offensive line, nor a result of being beaten-down physically by Georgia.
Rather, the Wildcats played like a disappointed and unhappy football team, which usually leads to a loss against whoever you’re playing.
Penn State is a formidable opponent and finished with a hot streak, but the Michigan game showed that (for all of Franklin’s overflowing machismo) the Nittany Lions are not elite and can be beaten by a less-than-championship-level opponent from the south. Even though the Wolverines are firmly in the north.
Take UK against the spread or straight-up.