Mark Story

Can someone explain why Florida deserves a better bowl than Kentucky?

Mark Stoops calls win over Louisville ‘gratifying ... good to see it all come together’

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team defeated host Louisville 56-10 on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. The Wildcats finished the regular season 9-3 and will play in a yet-to-be-determined bowl game.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team defeated host Louisville 56-10 on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. The Wildcats finished the regular season 9-3 and will play in a yet-to-be-determined bowl game.

When the 1984-85 men’s basketball season ended, Florida (18-11) had a better record than Kentucky (16-12). Head-to-head, the Gators had beaten the Wildcats two out of three, including a 58-55 win in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.

Yet, on Selection Sunday, it was marquee college hoops brand Kentucky that heard its name called for an NCAA Tournament bid, not tradition-light Florida.

“I don’t know what you call it, but it’s collusion, it’s political and it stinks,” then-Gators Coach Norm Sloan stormed.

Now, more than three decades later and in a different sport, Florida may get some karmic payback on Kentucky.

If the current college football bowl projections prove correct, it appears the Gators are headed for a “New Year’s Six” bowl.

Kentucky stood four spots lower than No. 11 Florida in last week’s College Football Playoff Rankings in spite of having an almost identical body of work to the Gators for 2018 — and with what should be the ultimately telling factor favoring the Wildcats.

Allen new
Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen (41) launched his stellar season by being named SEC Defensive Player of the Week after recording five tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in UK’s 27-16 win over then-No. 25 Florida. Monica Herndon TNS

Kyle Bonagura and Mitch Sherman of ESPN.com each have Florida slotted into the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl versus Central Florida.

Bill Bender of The Sporting News also sees Coach Dan Mullen’s Gators in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl, but facing Penn State.

Meanwhile, Brad Crawford of 24/7 Sports predicts Florida to the Fiesta Bowl to play Central Florida.

Conversely, both ESPN.com analysts have Kentucky in the Outback Bowl. Bonagura projects a UK-Northwestern matchup, while Sherman predicts Kentucky vs. Penn State.

The Sporting News’ Bender picks a Kentucky-Iowa meeting in the Outback; 24/7’s Crawford sees the Cats opposite Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

If you did a blind resume test of Florida and Kentucky, it’s hard to see how the Gators should be on top of the Cats.

Both teams are 9-3.

Both teams finished 5-3 in the SEC.

Both teams went 2-1 against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 at the time the games were played.

Both lost to SEC East champion Georgia by a similar margin. The Gators fell to Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs by 19 points on a neutral field in Jacksonville, the Wildcats by 17 in Lexington.

Both teams absorbed bad losses the week after their emotion-packed defeats to Georgia. Florida got rolled at home, 38-17, by Missouri; Kentucky fell 24-7 at profoundly mediocre Tennessee.

Both teams went 5-1 in the first half of their seasons, 4-2 in the second half.

What should tip any comparison between Florida and Kentucky in favor of the Wildcats is basic: On Sept. 8, Mark Stoops, Benny Snell, Josh Allen and Co. traveled to Gainesville and beat Florida in The Swamp, 27-16.

Car overturned after UK beat Florida
Revelers stood atop an overturned car on State Street in Lexington following Kentucky’s 27-16 win at Florida on Sept. 8, ending a 31-year losing streak. Arden Barnes Kentucky Kernel

So much else appearing equal between the two teams, that head-to-head result should be the tiebreaker.

Alas, the process that fills the major bowls is convoluted. The top four teams in the final College Football Playoff rankings will compete in the “national semifinals” — which, this year, will be the Cotton and Orange Bowls.

Any conference champion from the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) not included in the playoff is guaranteed a bid to one of the other “New Year’s Six” bowls — the Fiesta, Peach, Rose or Sugar.

The highest-ranked champion in the final College Football Playoff rankings from one of the so-called “Group of Five” conferences (The American, Conference-USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt) is also promised a major-bowl berth.

At-large teams get the remaining slots.

Conference contracts dictate the composition of the Sugar (SEC vs. Big 12) and Rose (Big Ten vs. Pac-12) bowls. The Fiesta and Peach are “access” bowls, open to all qualified entrants regardless of conference.

Florida’s advantage over Kentucky in the playoff rankings appears primarily due to timing. UK absorbed two of its three losses in back-to-back weeks in November; Florida spread its defeats out more equitably with one each in early September, late October and early November.

The consolation for Kentucky backers is that the Cats are being widely projected for a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida. The Citrus Bowl is in Orlando; the Outback in Tampa.

Strictly from a fan-experience standpoint, watching the Wildcats play on Jan. 1 in the Sunshine State might be more enjoyable than the Peach Bowl’s noon slot on Dec. 29, the same day as the College Football Playoff semifinals, or having to travel to Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl.

Still, on merit, Kentucky — which has not played in a major bowl since the 1952 Cotton Bowl — should be ranked above Florida in the 2018 bowl pecking order.

Call it “Norm Sloan’s revenge,” but it does not appear that is how things are going to play out.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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Kentucky football running back Benny Snell talks to the media after his team's 56-10 win over Louisville on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.. Snell was asked if he will play in the team's yet-to-be determined bowl game.

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