The weather here could hardly be more perfect.
The sun is shining. The temperature is in the high 70s, lows 80s. Just a few clouds dot the sky. People are walking around in shorts and T-shirts. Monday, the tourists were headed to Disney World or Sea World or Universal Studios Theme Parks. Tuesday, they’ll be taking in a football game: Kentucky vs. Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
Not just any football game, mind you. Not just any bowl game. It’s a New Year’s Day Bowl game. That means something. Over the history of UK’s football program, you can count the number of those on one hand. The last time was 1999. Before that, you have to flip the record book all the way back to 1952.
“It’s an honor to be here,” said Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops on Monday at a joint press conference with Penn State Coach James Franklin in a cramped meeting room at the Rosen Plaza Hotel. “We look forward to the opportunity.”
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It’s an honor earned. By now, you know the résumé. For the first time since 1984, Kentucky has won nine games in a season. For the first time since 1977, UK won more conference games than it lost. Senior outside linebacker Josh Allen has a multitude of postseason awards for his trophy case. Junior running back Benny Snell rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the third straight season. And there’s room for more.
“To get 10 wins would be huge,” UK senior tight end C.J. Conrad before the Cats departed Lexington for Orlando.
There’s a fixation with the number. There’s the AP top 10. There was David Letterman’s famous “Top Ten List” on the Late Show. Here at the end of the year, we get rankings of the top-10 movies, the top-10 television shows, the top-10 songs. Ten means something.
“I think it’s a benchmark,” said Franklin on Monday, with his team attempting to win 10 or more games for the third consecutive season. “Some programs are benchmarked on going to bowl games and that’s kind of the first level. I think the next level is 10-win seasons.”
Over the years, Kentucky football has produced just two of those. Bear Bryant’s 1950 Wildcats, the famous team of Babe Parilli and Bob Gain that beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to snap the Sooners’ 31-game winning streak, went 10-1. Fran Curci’s 1977 Wildcats, the famous team of Derrick Ramsey and Art Still that was ineligible for a bowl berth because of probation, also went 10-1. This could be the third.
“To get 10, to hit that milestone,” Stoops said Monday, “is another motivating factor.”
It won’t be easy. Penn State is a 6.5-point favorite. The Nittany Lions were ranked 12th with UK 14th in the final AP regular-season poll. Penn State boasts a heady senior quarterback in Trace McSorley. It’s not a New Year’s Bowl novice.
The outcome of any bowl game is difficult to predict, however. Ask Purdue Coach Jeff Brohm, whose Boilermakers were bashed by Auburn in the Music City Bowl. Ask Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, who watched his Wolverines get caught beneath Florida’s wheels in the Peach Bowl. Ask now former Miami coach Mark Richt, whose team was whipped 35-3 by Wisconsin in the Pinstripe Bowl. Three days later, Richt announced his retirement.
Usually, it’s the team that wants to be at that particular bowl that has the best chance of winning. That doesn’t mean the team that wants the gift bags and the warm weather and the pleasure trip away from home. It means the team that is motivated to win the game.
That makes me think of Josh Allen. A possible top five NFL Draft pick in April, he’s taking a risk playing Tuesday. Citing what an injury could do to his future earning potential, Allen could have skipped the trip. He didn’t. He’s here. And he’s ready. “I want to play with my brothers,” he said back in Lexington.
Sounds like the perfect motivation to me.
No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Penn State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, WLXG-AM 1300, WLXG-FM 92.5