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Penn State football: Nittany Lions will play Kentucky in Citrus Bowl

Penn State spent the last few weeks on the Peach Bowl bubble. But the Nittany Lions won’t be heading to a third straight New Year’s Six game.

Pack your bags for Florida, Penn State fans. The No. 12 Nittany Lions are set to face No. 14 Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, played at 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

“I think it’s going to be a great game. I think it’s going to be a tremendous challenge, and a great opportunity,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said Sunday night. “I’m just looking forward to spending a little bit more time with this team and specifically our senior players. Those guys have been special for our program over the last four, five years. So, a great opportunity, and on behalf of Penn State and our entire football program and our university, we want to thank the Citrus Bowl.”

Penn State (9-3) and Kentucky (9-3) are the highest-ranked three-loss teams not to reach a New Year’s Six game. Instead of the Nittany Lions or Wildcats, Michigan, LSU and Florida earned the College Football Playoff committee’s three at-large bids.

For a team with preseason College Football Playoff hopes, this isn’t necessarily the bowl the Nittany Lions saw themselves in back in August. Expectations lowered after a frustrating 27-26 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 29, and any playoff hopes were dashed two weeks later with a sloppy 21-17 loss at home to Michigan State.

But Franklin’s crew — a club guided by fifth-year senior Trace McSorley and a young supporting cast — have history to play for. With a win, Penn State would reach 10 wins for the third consecutive season. The last time that happened? 1980-82.

“I know this season there have been some ups and downs and some challenges and adversity,” Franklin said after last weekend’s win over Maryland. “But when you talk about the Big Ten era, this has been one of the best three-year stretches in program history.”

Meanwhile, Kentucky has put together its best season in decades. Mark Stoops, in his sixth season coaching in Lexington, led the Wildcats to their first nine-win season since 1984.

Kentucky boasts September wins at Florida and against Mississippi State, enough at the time to generate SEC East title buzz. Stoops’ squad lost two of its last four, including an ugly 17-point defeat at lowly Tennessee. But it pounded rival Louisville, 56-10, in the regular-season finale.

Now, the Wildcats are playing in their best bowl game since the Reagan administration, while Penn State tries to make history.

“When you can do something that’s never been done at Penn State before in the Big Ten era, that’s a pretty strong statement,” Franklin said. “It’s something that our senior class can be really proud of.”

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