The University of Kentucky is headed back to a familiar locale to face a familiar foe during the 2009 bowl season.
The Wildcats (7-5) will play Clemson (8-5) in the Music City Bowl on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 8:30 p.m. at Nashville's LP Field. UK beat the Tigers 28-20 in the 2006 Music City Bowl.
The Wildcats had talked all season about wanting to get out of the state of Tennessee for a bowl game. But a painful 30-24 overtime loss to Tennessee combined with an unusual set of circumstances with the ACC bowl selection process steered UK back to Nashville.
Georgia Tech earned the ACC's BCS bid by beating Clemson, and the Chick-fil-A Bowl went with a Virginia Tech-Tennessee matchup. But with Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden set to retire at the end of the season, the Seminoles became a hot commodity on the bowl circuit, and the Gator Bowl, which had the next pick among ACC teams, decided to pass up Clemson to host Bowden's farewell. The Champs Sports Bowl then went with Miami, and with the Music City Bowl contractually obligated to take the loser of the ACC Championship Game if they were still available, a UK-Clemson rematch was formed.
Now the Wildcats must put on their happy faces and get ready to head back to Nashville. It marks an unprecedented fourth straight bowl appearance for the Kentucky program.
"I think the important thing is that we are in our fourth straight bowl," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "It's a surrounding that we're familiar with. We are familiar with where we'll practice, the meeting rooms, the hotels, the whole deal."
"It's still a bowl game, and it's better than sitting at home," senior tailback Alfonso Smith said.
There had been talk of the Cats possibly sliding all the way down to the Independence Bowl, but the Music City decided to grab UK, which means Georgia will be headed to Shreveport.
"It definitely could have been a lot worse; just ask a few teams who are going other places that are upset that they aren't going where we are," Brooks said. "And we're upset that we aren't going where somebody else is going. So that's all part of the equation."
Kentucky was trying to spin the positives of another trip to the Music City. The Music City Bowl will be broadcast in prime time on ESPN and is the only bowl game taking place on Dec. 27. And the UK players want to try and erase the bitter taste of the Tennessee game from their mouths.
"I think it will linger for the rest of my life," Smith said of the UT loss. "It hurts real bad, and it will probably hurt for a long time. Every time I see the Tennessee orange I'm probably going to get sick. But if we win this game, it will help wash the Tennessee game away."
Clemson won the ACC Atlantic Division but fell to Georgia Tech 39-34 in Saturday's ACC Championship Game.
The Tigers feature senior tailback/kick returner and ACC Player of the Year C.J. Spiller, who rushed for 233 yards and four touchdowns in the ACC title game. Spiller has 7,416 career all-purpose yards in his career and needs 349 yards to become the all-time NCAA leader. His 50 career touchdowns rank second all-time behind Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (56).
The Wildcats will also use the familiar underdog role for extra motivation.
"I'm sure (Clemson) will be favored, so that'll give us something to get excited about, to come out and prove ourselves," senior defensive tackle Corey Peters said.
And Smith said the gifts that come with a bowl appearance always make it worthwhile.
"We'll get excited once the bowl gifts start coming in," Smith said. "I'm just happy to have another (bowl) ring. I'll be like (Michael) Jordan almost."
There will be an added twist to this year's trip to Nashville. UK played on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 in its two other trips to the Music City Bowl, which allowed players to go home for Christmas before meeting up in Nashville. But with the 2009 game set for Dec. 27, the Cats will leave on Dec. 22 and practice on Christmas Day.
"We'll have some meals and everything," Brooks said. "I don't know if they've got a Santa costume that fits me or not, and I know my players don't think I'm Santa anyway. That probably would be a bad idea."
Smith wants shot at Spiller
Smith was somewhat perturbed when he found a Web site that listed Spiller as the fastest senior back in the nation. Smith claimed that the Web site got he and Spiller's 40-yard dash times mixed up, listing Spiller with 4.3 speed and Smith with 4.4.
Smith has been clocked below a 4.3 at UK Pro Day workouts in the past. He indicated he'd like to have a friendly race with Spiller just to prove his point.
"How can you switch 40 times like that?" Smith said with a laugh. "I don't run a 4.4; that's an insult. I've got something to prove. I hope we can do it at practice. Have the cameras there so everybody can see it."
Hartline could return
Junior quarterback Mike Hartline (knee) is no longer on crutches and could participate in drills next weekend. UK won't resume practice until Saturday.