Expansion has watered down the importance of making a college football bowl game these days, but there’s still something special about playing on New Year’s Day.
And that’s just where the Kentucky football Wildcats are going to celebrate the start of 2019. The official word came down Sunday that Mark Stoops’ Cats will play the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 1.
It will be UK’s first trip to a New Year’s Day bowl since Tim Couch and the Cats lost to Penn State 26-14 in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 1, 1999. And it’s just the fourth New Year’s Day bowl in the program’s history, including Bear Bryant’s consecutive trips to the Sugar Bowl (1951) and Cotton Bowl (1952).
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True, the Citrus Bowl is not a part of the College Football Playoff, which now takes precedent over the bowl bonanza. On Dec. 29, No. 1 seed Alabama will face No. 4 seed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl while No. 2 seed Clemson plays No. 3 seed Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The winners travel to Santa Clara for the Jan. 7 national championship game.
The Citrus Bowl is not one of the so-called New Year’s Six Bowl games, involving teams just below the College Football Playoff. Florida will play Michigan in the Chick-fil-A-Bowl on Dec. 29. Then on Jan. 1, UCF will play LSU in the Fiesta Bowl; Ohio State will play Washington in the Rose Bowl and Georgia will play Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
Wait a minute. Didn’t Kentucky beat Florida in September? Yes, the Cats defeated the Gators 27-16 in Gainesville. Both teams finished the season 9-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC, however. In the judgment of the CFP Selection Committee, Florida is the 10th-best team in the nation while Kentucky is 14th.
Brand surely has something to do with that. Florida is a brand-name college football program, a bowl staple with multiple national championships. Kentucky is trying to become a college football brand, this being its third consecutive bowl trip under Stoops and its first nine-win regular season since 1977.
That’s the reason making a New Year’s Day game matters. This isn’t college basketball, where if you make the NCAA Tournament you can prove your worth against the best, as long as you keep winning. In college football, you have to stack one successful year on top of another to build tradition. And tradition matters.
Penn State knows. The Nittany Lions boast one of the sport’s richest traditions. It is so rich the program survived the 2011 Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that brought down the late Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary coach. Seven years later, PSU is in its fifth consecutive bowl game under James Franklin.
You remember Franklin. Before moving to State College, Pa., Franklin worked wonders at Vanderbilt, taking the SEC’s doormat to lofty heights. He went 24-15 in Nashville, including back-to-back 9-4 seasons. He was 3-0 against Kentucky, beating Joker Phillips 38-8 in 2011 and 40-0 in 2012 before topping UK 22-6 in 2013, Stoops’ first season.
Franklin is 45-20 at Penn State, including an 11-3 team in 2016 that reached the Rose Bowl and an 11-2 team last season that beat Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. This year’s Lions are 9-3 with a 27-26 loss to Ohio State, a 21-17 loss to Michigan State and a 42-7 shellacking at Michigan.
If the Citrus is a small step down for PSU, it’s a leap forward for Kentucky. In the two decades since Hal Mumme took UK to the Outback, the Cats have been to eight bowls — once to the BBVA Compass Bowl, once to the Liberty Bowl, once to the TaxSlayer Bowl and five times to the Music City Bowl.
With no disrespect to Nashville, the Citrus Bowl isn’t the Music City Bowl. It’s a New Year’s Day Bowl. And there’s still something special about a New Year’s Day Bowl.
Kentucky vs. Penn State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.