John Clay

A Taxslayer Bowl loss won’t hurt Kentucky, but a win could be big

If Kentucky loses here Saturday to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl, it won’t mean the season is suddenly a failure.

After all, it’s the program’s first bowl game under Mark Stoops and its first overall since the 2010 season. Kentucky won seven games this season, including four SEC games. It upset Louisville. Just playing a postseason game means it accomplished its preseason goal.

And yet, as the veteran Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson said at the bowl-eve press conference Friday at the Hyatt Regency, “I think like any game, everybody is competitive and you want to win. You’ve got to try to win.”

And if a loss doesn’t hurt Kentucky, a win would surely be of lasting benefit. Not just making, but winning a bowl game over a worthy opponent would add a length or two to the step the Cats have taken in 2016.

“I think it would mean a lot to this program (to get) this eighth win,” said UK quarterback Stephen Johnson on Friday. “It really would mean a lot to the seniors, to build this program up with recruiting, the new guys coming. It sets a new point for us to get past, to go past eight games.”

There are so many bowl games these days, popular opinion says the results of those outside the College Football Playoffs are meaningless. There is plenty of truth to that, but the tag isn’t one size fits all.

We all know the history of this Kentucky team — the 0-2 start; the season-ending injury to the quarterback the next week; the subsequent turnaround on both sides of the football that paved the way to a Florida bowl.

And if we can’t see exactly into that crystal ball, we know enough to think good things could happen next season. This is primarily a young team, led by underclassmen, especially on defense.

A win Saturday could accelerate the process. It would not only springboard the Cats into winter workouts but add a sense of achievement and confidence heading into 2017, something this program hasn’t had in awhile.

A win won’t be easy, however. Bowls are old hat for Georgia Tech. This is its eighth bowl game in Johnson’s nine years as coach. A 3-9 record kept Georgia Tech at home last season, and the Jackets weren’t fond of the feeling. They’re happy to be back and know how to act.

Meanwhile, this is new territory for Stoops and company. The coach admitted he had to call his old boss Jimbo Fisher at Florida State for a bowl practice schedule. It’s difficult to know how the Cats will respond.

Often in bowl games, one team is not all that thrilled to be here. Its record was a disappointment or it was banking on a better destination. That doesn’t seem to be the case with either TaxSlayer Bowl participant. On Friday, at least, both squads appeared to have enjoyed the week.

So then the result often comes down to which team has the most to prove. After knocking off Vanderbilt and archrival UGA in the regular season, Georgia Tech would no doubt like to beat a third SEC school. And any time Johnson takes the field, the coach wants to show his unusual offensive scheme can succeed.

True, Kentucky has the SEC’s sinking reputation to uphold — the league was just 1-4 entering Friday’s bowl games — but there’s more at stake than that. Once here, surely the Cats want to prove that they belong and that the future is as bright as it looks.

On New Year’s Eve, a Kentucky win would not only tie a bow on 2016, but set the stage for ’17.

Kentucky bowl victories

Season

Bowl

Opponent

Score

Result

Next season

1947

Great Lakes

Villanova

24-14

W

5-3-2

1950

Sugar

Oklahoma

13-7

W

8-4

1951

Cotton

TCU

20-7

W

5-4-2

1976

Peach

North Carolina

21-0

W

10-1

1984

Hall of Fame

Wisconsin

20-19

W

5-6

2006

Music City

Clemson

28-20

W

8-5

2007

Music City

Florida State

35-28

W

7-6

2008

Liberty

East Carolina

25-19

W

7-6

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