For the first time since the 2009 season, Penn State is heading back to Orlando, Fla.
The Nittany Lions will face upstart Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl at 1 p.m. Jan. 1 at Camping World Stadium, the bowl announced Sunday afternoon.
“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the opportunity,” coach James Franklin said. “The players are excited. Our coaches are excited. It’s obviously a historic bowl game, and we’re looking forward to playing Kentucky, a program we have great respect for. It’s going to be a great game and a tremendous challenge.”
The Citrus provided a soft landing spot for the Wildcats and Nittany Lions, who had hopes of cracking a third consecutive berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Penn State’s chances were dashed, though, when the College Football Playoff committee ranked Big 12 champion Oklahoma, not Big Ten champion Ohio State, as the No. 4 team in its final rankings. That opened an opportunity for No. 15 Texas to garner the Big 12’s automatic berth to the Sugar Bowl, leaving the No. 12 Nittany Lions on the outside looking in.
But Penn State wound up with an intriguing matchup against a Wildcats team that exceeded expectations in the SEC this season.
Kentucky’s 9-3 record is the program’s best since 1977, and coach Mark Stoops’ defense — led by SEC sacks leader Josh Allen — ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 16.3 points per game.
Kentucky is led by running back Benny Snell Jr., who ran for 1,305 yards this season, the 12th-best total in the nation.
Franklin, who conducted his conference call with reporters from an airport in between flights to recruiting trips, said he couldn’t discuss specific Wildcats players or schemes because the Penn State coaching staff simply hasn’t had time to delve too far into game planning. The coaches just got video of Kentucky’s games Sunday, and coaches who are on the road will start to scour it in between recruiting sessions.
Franklin said Penn State can’t afford to be disappointed by being passed over for a New Year’s Six berth, given how successful Kentucky was this season.
“To be honest, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time studying (the New Year’s Six possibilities),” Franklin said. “People on my staff were telling me the 37 different things that had to happen for us. … but that stuff is out of our control. The committee has got a challenging job. I thought there was a chance, and I heard some different possibilities. But this is one I did hear, against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. And I thought that would be a good matchup.”
A win would mean a great deal to each team. Penn State could clinch its third consecutive 10-win season. It hasn’t had that many consecutive 10-win seasons since the 1980-82 seasons.
Kentucky has gone 41 seasons between 10-win campaigns, and it can garner one by upending the Nittany Lions.
“That would be extremely important to us,” Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said. “I’m so proud of this football team and how far it has come. We’ve got a great senior group that has helped us build and got us to this point.
“That 10th win is important. It hasn’t been done here since 1977, and our seniors want to build on what has been done here and set the tone for our younger players. We’re playing a team with a great tradition and history in Penn State. This will mean a great deal to our fan base.”