Mark Story

Think bowls don’t matter? Five reasons the Citrus Bowl is huge for UK.

Stoops discusses preparations for Citrus Bowl in Orlando

University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops discussed his team's preparations for the Citrus Bowl as the Wildcats took to the practice field for the first time in Florida on Thursday. UK plays Penn State on New Year's Day at 1 p.m.
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University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops discussed his team's preparations for the Citrus Bowl as the Wildcats took to the practice field for the first time in Florida on Thursday. UK plays Penn State on New Year's Day at 1 p.m.

By emerging 2018 consensus, bowl games are so 1978.

Coaches skip out on their teams before bowls for new jobs. Star players bail before the bowl to protect their NFL Draft value.

Heck, just last week, a bowl game skipped out on itself. The First Responder Bowl in Dallas between Boston College and Boise State was canceled in-game due to persistent thunderstorms.

Yet when No. 14 Kentucky (9-3) and No. 12 Penn State (9-3) face off Tuesday in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, UK backers will be treated to a throwback New Year’s Day.

For the Wildcats players, winning the Citrus Bowl matters in profound ways:

1. Chance for a 10-win season.

In the history of Kentucky football, only two prior teams have reached double-digit victories in a season.

Bear Bryant’s 1950 Wildcats — led by Babe Parilli and Bob Gain — went 11-1.

Fran Curci’s 1977 Wildcats — led by Derrick Ramsey and Art Still — went 10-1.

Mark Stoops’ 2018 Wildcats — led by Benny Snell and Josh Allen — will finish 10-3 with a win over James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.

Hundreds of UK fans greeted coach Mark Stoops and Benny Snell during a pep rally Monday evening before Tuesday's VRBO Citrus Bowl game against Penn State in Orlando, Fla.

“That 10th win, not a lot of Kentucky teams can say that,” UK’s Allen says. “I’m here to make history.”

Kentucky All-America offensive guard Bunchy Stallings says UK assistant coach John Schlarman — a former Kentucky player (1994-97) — has preached the historical significance of the current Wildcats getting to 10 wins.

“To hear him talk about it, that’s when you really understand, man, this 10th win is important,” Stallings says.

2. Chance to get Stoops off the bowl schneid.

For all the good work Stoops has done in building UK from 2-10 in his first season (2013) to the current three straight bowl years, a post-season victory has so far eluded the coach.

Two seasons ago, Kentucky sputtered in a 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Last year, a late UK two-point conversion try failed and the Cats fell 24-23 to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl.

Overall, Kentucky has lost in its last four bowls.

You don’t want to become known as a program — or a head coach — who doesn’t win in the postseason.

“We’ve gone to two straight bowl games and haven’t gotten a win,” Stallings says. “It does not feel good when you work this hard throughout the whole season and get a big accomplishment of making a bowl game and you ... lose it.”

3. Chance to beat a football “brand name.”

As college football identities go, Penn State is as “old money” as the Rockefellers.

When Tuesday’s game kicks off, the Nittany Lions will be making their 49th bowl appearance. Conversely, Kentucky will be playing in only its 18th bowl game.

For UK, beating an old-line “football school” in a New Year’s Day bowl would be a stamp of pigskin legitimacy.

“I have a lot of respect for a program like Penn State — they have a lot of really good history,” Kentucky senior tight end C.J. Conrad says. “For us, to not have that much history with Kentucky football, it would mean a lot for us to get this win.”

4. Chance to restore legacy with UK fans.

Kentucky’s midseason offensive doldrums — five straight games without scoring 20 points from Oct. 6 through Nov. 10 — and the dispiriting 24-7 loss to Tennessee in the season’s 10th game combined to take a lot of fan joy out of a memorable UK football season.

An impressive win in a New Year’s Day bowl over Penn State would restore much of what was lost with the Big Blue Nation.

Says Conrad: “I want to leave (Kentucky) on a positive note.”

5. Chance for a “senior” statement.

The Citrus Bowl will be the final college game for the most significant class of Kentucky football seniors since the 2007 class of Andre Woodson, Wesley Woodyard, etc.

Also bowing out will be star junior running back Snell — who has already announced he will enter his name in the 2019 NFL Draft.

To see how much going out with a bowl victory means to the departing UK players, one need only look at Allen.

The consensus First Team All-America spent his December traveling the country receiving national defensive player of the year awards. The outside linebacker/rush end is now seen as a possible top-five pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

In the zeitgeist of 2018, his is the profile of the kind of player who sits out bowl games.

Josh Allen will be playing for Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.

“Finishing with my team,” Allen says. “It was something I always stayed true to. ... I am going to finish with my team and make history.”

For UK and its players, this Citrus Bowl matters. It matters very much.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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