Mark Story

The final barrier Kentucky football can shatter this season

Kash Daniel says UK blessed to be in New Year’s bowl

Kentucky football linebacker Kash Daniel talks about how UK feels about playing in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. The appearance will be just the fifth New Year's Day bowl in program history.
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Kentucky football linebacker Kash Daniel talks about how UK feels about playing in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. The appearance will be just the fifth New Year's Day bowl in program history.

Counting Notre Dame, there are 65 Power Five Conference-level football programs.

Of that 65, all but six have enjoyed at least one double-digit win football season in the 21st Century.

Amazingly, three Power Five conference schools — Indiana of the Big Ten, Iowa State of the Big 12 and Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference — have never won as many as 10 games in one football season in any century.

Virginia of the ACC has not won as many as 10 since 1989.

Purdue of the Big Ten has not reached double-figure victories since 1979.

And Kentucky of the SEC last won 10 games in 1977.

Unlike the other five, however, UK Coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats can still remove Kentucky from that list this season.

When the No. 14 Wildcats (9-3) face No. 12 Penn State (9-3) in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, the Cats can claim what would be only the third 10-victory season in Kentucky football history.

“It would mean the world,” Kentucky middle linebacker Kash Daniel says. “That’s something that hasn’t been done here in a very long time.”

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart talks to the media after the UK football team was selected to play in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. Both Kentucky and Penn State are 9-3.

It has already been a blue-letter year for Kentucky football in breaking through negative barriers.

UK has secured its first nine-win season overall since Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl championship team (9-3).

Kentucky has reached nine wins in a regular season for the first time since Fran Curci’s 1977 Wildcats finished 10-1.

At 5-3, the Cats produced a winning record in SEC games for the first time since 1977 (6-0).

Though word apparently failed to reach the College Football Playoff Selection Committee in time to inform their rankings, Kentucky snapped what had been an embarrassing 31-game losing streak to league rival Florida by administering a 27-16 beating to the Gators in Gainesville in Week 2.

That win over Florida (9-3, 5-3 SEC) gave UK the conference tiebreaker on the Gators and meant the Cats finished second in the SEC East for the first time since the league split into divisions in 1992.

Smiling Mark Stoops
Mark Stoops was named SEC Coach of the Year by the Associated Press Monday. The Kentucky head man will try to lead the Wildcats to their first 10-win season since 1977 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl against Penn State on New Year’s Day. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

For Kentucky football, it is hard to overstate how important it is to smash through the negative boundaries on achievement that have formed because of decades of mediocre-to-worse Wildcats performance.

Each time Kentucky football registers a positive break through, it removes an arrow from the negative-recruiting quiver that opponents have eternally used against UK.

Even more importantly, when Kentucky crosses a constraining threshold, it expands the paradigm of what is realistically possible for Wildcats football.

“They’ve worked extremely hard to be 9-3, be 14th in the CFP rankings, to have an opportunity to have a 5-3 record in SEC play,” UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said Sunday night of the current Cats. “To do the things on the field that they’ve done, to set new standards and do new things that we haven’t done in an awfully long time at Kentucky is exciting.”

Kentucky football quarterback Terry Wilson talks about the extra practice time UK will receive in preparation for the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, at Orlando, Fla. UK will play Penn State in the New Year's Day game.

Bowl games that are outside the College Football Playoffs semifinals often turn on which team actually wants to be there.

It will be interesting to see how much inspiration Penn State brings to Orlando, as the Nittany Lions began the season with higher aspirations than the Citrus Bowl.

Then again, as James Franklin showed emphatically during his successful three seasons at Vanderbilt (2011-13), the Penn State head man usually finds the button to push to have his teams ready to play.

For all the positive moments in Kentucky’s 2018 season, the Wildcats left some “money on the table” in the form of missed opportunities.

UK lost its chance to win the SEC East for the first time ever when it was beaten by a better team, Georgia, 34-17, at Kroger Field on Nov. 3.

In a game that will long haunt UK fans, the Cats likely cost themselves their first major bowl appearance since the 1952 Cotton Bowl when they were beaten by an inferior team, a listless 24-7 defeat at Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC) one week later.

Nevertheless, the chance to get to 10 victories should be plenty motivating for Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.

Only two prior Wildcats teams, Bear Bryant’s 1950 squad (11-1) and Curci’s 1977 crew (10-1), have ever reached double-digit wins.

“Not only just to be a part of (a 10-win team) now, but when I’m done playing football and all that stuff, I can look back and say ‘That was my team’ and be proud of it and be something I can hold on to for the rest of my life,” says Kash Daniel.

A final positive breakthrough to cap a season filled with them is what Kentucky will have at stake on New Year’s Day in sunny F-l-a.

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Citrus Bowl

Kentucky vs. Penn State

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1

Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

TV: ABC-36

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