It seems like weeks since Kentucky was dancing on the field and in the visitor’s locker room at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The Cats had just completed a turnaround from 0-2 to start this season to winning seven of their final 10 games, ending in a 41-38 victory at then-No. 11 Louisville.
There were lots of cheers and smiles, which returned again during a team meeting last week when Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart rattled off UK’s potential bowl scenarios.
“It was fun to watch the expressions on their face as we talked about the possibility of Jacksonville,” Barnhart said Sunday night. “They got excited, and that’s at the end of day what we’re all in this for, to help fulfill some dreams and hopes for them.”
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That talk turned to reality for Kentucky on Sunday when it was announced the Cats would indeed be heading to the TaxSlayer Bowl — formerly the Gator Bowl — to take on Georgia Tech on Dec. 31 at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
An invitation to a more prominent bowl thanks to that victory over the Cardinals is just one of many ways Kentucky made progress this season, Coach Mark Stoops said.
“It’s kind of been our mantra all year with knocking down doors,” Stoops said of UK’s first bowl appearance in six seasons. “This is another one. We’re just trying to knock down doors one at a time.”
And while he said he can’t control the history of UK football, he thinks the present and future look bright.
“We’re excited,” Stoops said. “I think we’re a team that’s improving each and every week, and again we’re excited about the extra bowl practices and getting to Jacksonville.”
The Cats (7-5) will face a Georgia Tech team that ended the season with momentum by winning three straight games, including road victories against Virginia Tech and Georgia.
But shortly after the win over the Bulldogs, the Jackets’ leading rusher the past two seasons announced he was planning to transfer and would not participate in the bowl game.
Marcus Marshall, a sophomore from Raleigh, N.C., had 96 carries for 624 yards and two touchdowns this season after gaining 654 yards and scoring four TDs as a freshman.
He was a key cog in the Jackets’ triple-option attack, which UK’s coaches have some experience going against.
In 2012 while at Florida State — as Stoops was transitioning to his new job at Kentucky — Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot constructed the Seminoles’ game plan for the Jackets in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
“Fortunately, we do have some extra time. Hopefully, we can put that to good use and have a good plan,” Stoops said of preparing for Tech’s triple option attack.
“It was a real challenge to play them in a week’s period of time at Florida State, and fortunately, we had some extremely athletic guys there and we were able to get a few stops.”
Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson noted it may be a quick game with two teams who rely so heavily on the run.
“The TV people may want to hurry up and get the commercials in,” Johnson said. “It may be a quick game.”
Then the Georgia Tech coach added with a laugh: “If Mark will promise not to throw, we will, too.”
The Yellow Jackets have the No. 10 rushing offense in the country, averaging 257.4 yards a game with 32 touchdowns. They have the 12th most rushing attempts in the nation. And they’ve had just nine touchdowns via the air and are averaging only 131.2 passing yards.
Stoops didn’t exactly agree to those terms, but he agreed it could be a short game.
“But I’m sure with the ability to run the ball, it also creates the opportunity for big plays,” UK’s coach said. “So I’m sure both teams will be looking to limit that.”
This is the Cats’ first trip to the bowl and their fourth bowl game to be played on Dec. 31. In those previous three bowls — two Peach and one Music City — UK is 2-1.
The Cats have played Georgia Tech 19 times, but not since 1960. UK is 7-11-1 against the Jackets, losing four of the last five meetings.
Several Kentucky players turned down scholarship offers from UK’s next opponent, including running back Boom Williams, wide receiver Garrett Johnson and defensive end Denzil Ware.
The TaxSlayer Bowl, which will be played at 11 a.m. on ESPN, will be a homecoming of sorts for 14 players on the team from Florida.
There are tons of Sunshine State ties on the Cats’ coaching staff as well. Stoops spent seven seasons as an assistant coach in the state — three years each at Miami and Florida State, and another on the staff at South Florida in 1996.
UK wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas, a former star at Miami, is a native of Gainesville and was a four-sport letterman at F.W. Buchholz High School.
Co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw is a Punta Gorda, Fla., native and was a record-setting quarterback at Central Florida.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive coach D.J. Eliot both coached at Florida State with Stoops and had stops at Miami. Gran also has an extensive history in Florida, recruiting there for nearly 30 years.
When the Cats earned their sixth win and secured bowl eligibility, Stoops talked about how much it meant for UK to earn postseason play.
“It’s a big step in the culture change,” he said. “And we want this to be the norm to go to bowl games and win over six games, and that’s our plan.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 31
Where: EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: UK 7-5, Ga. Tech 8-4