The No. 12 Penn State Nittany Lions and No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats will meet in the Citrus Bowl at 1 p.m. on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla.
Penn State fans are plenty familiar with their team by now, and others in the Big Ten, but here’s what you should know about the SEC East’s Kentucky:
This is Kentucky’s best season in 34 years
Kentucky fans have waited for a season like this for a long time. A really long time. The Wildcats are 9-3, and they last won nine games in 1984 — back when head coach Mark Stoops was still in high school, playing under his father.
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Kentucky is also currently ranked No. 16 in the AP Poll. The last time it was ranked that high? Eleven years ago when it reached No. 8, before losing five of the next seven. The last time it won a bowl? Ten years ago.
This is the 103rd season of Kentucky football, and it has the potential to be just the third time the Wildcats have won 10 games. That last came during 1977’s 10-1 season. So, yeah, success like this is pretty new for UK football.
RB Benny Snell and LB Josh Allen are among the nation’s best — but might not play in the bowl
Allen, a finalist for every major defensive award, isn’t just one of the nation’s best linebackers. He’s one of the country’s best overall players. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper ranked him No. 4 overall on his big board for the 2019 NFL draft, and he’s been the heart and soul of a stingy defense.
But let’s not bury the lede here. Allen was noncommittal a week ago when asked about whether he was competing in the bowl. “I have a whole month, almost two months, to decide what I’m going to do, what’s best for my family and the team,” he said. “We’ll see when the bowl comes around.”
Snell sounded more probable to play but still left the door open. “As of now, I’m playing in the bowl game,” he said, while saying he hadn’t finalized the decision.
Both players are definitely exciting to watch. Snell, a junior, is widely regarded as a top-3 or top-5 back in the upcoming NFL draft. Not unlike Penn State’s own Miles Sanders. Snell boasts 1,330 rushing yards (5.1 ypc) for 14 TDs this season.
Allen is even more impressive. He leads the team in just about every defensive category. He’s tops in tackles (84), tackles for loss (18.5), sacks (14), QB hurries (6), fumble recoveries (2) and forced fumbles (5). He’s versatile, he’s fast — he was a wideout in high school — and he’s relentless.
It was a slow rebuilding process to get to this point
The Kentucky turnaround was nothing like Purdue, where it hired a hotshot coach and then watched everything change overnight. This season was essentially five years in the making.
Stoops was hired in 2013 by a school committed to pouring in more resources to compete in the SEC. That meant more patience from Kentucky, and a contract amendment last season that would give Stoops an automatic one-year extension every time he won seven games and a two-year extension for every 10-win season.
For simplicity’s sake, the changes here can be boiled down to three things. Stoops’ roots are in Youngstown, Ohio, and he’s mined that state for recruiting talent, including players such as Snell. He hired two great coordinators, OC Eddie Gran and DC Matt House, who are both receiving head-coaching buzz. And he’s developed the talent on this team — more than three-quarters of the starting lineup are in their third year with the program — and the progress has been slow but steady.
Here are Stoops’ number of wins each season: 2, 5, 5, 7, 7, 9. There’s never been a step back. Kentucky still has a long way to go, but it’s also come a really long way already.
Get ready to see plenty of the run game
Not only does Kentucky run it on 63.6 percent of its offensive plays, but its passing defense is ranked No. 17 nationally — meaning opposing teams tend to rely on their own run game, as well.
Only a single opponent, Middle Tennessee State, threw for more than 235 yards against the Wildcats this season. And whoever won the weekly rushing battle usually won the game. UK was 1-4 when allowing more than 150 rushing yards, and it lost all three games in which it was out-rushed.
Although Snell is the big name on offense, quarterback Terry Wilson also has 518 rushing yards and four TDs. And 6-foot-1, 208-pound back Asim Rose has 433 yards to go along with five scores.