Kentucky football 'appreciative' after drawing Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl
LEXINGTON – Kentucky football's bowl selection Sunday was far from boring.
The Wildcats started the weekend knowing results in the conference title games might create a ripple effect that would alter their landing spot. But even after the underdogs fared better than expected in several of those games, the day started with national reports that Kentucky was poised for a trip to Jacksonville, Florida, for a Gator Bowl matchup with Indiana.
An hour before the SEC announced its mid-tier bowl games, the rumblings changed though, and the league eventually settled on sending Kentucky to the Belk Bowl for a Dec. 31 matchup with ACC-foe Virginia Tech.
"You can’t get into these things and think that — unless you’re undefeated — you own the day," UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "And sometimes when you’re undefeated, you don’t get to own the day. At the end of the day, we’ll always be appreciative of where we go."
The Wildcats and Hokies last played in 1987. The two programs have met 19 times with Kentucky holding an 11-6-2 advantage in the series.
Kentucky will be playing in the Belk Bowl for the first time in program history. The Wildcats have now played in the Belk, Citrus, Music City and Taxslayer bowls in the Mark Stoops era.
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Heading into Sunday, Kentucky’s bowl prospects were uncertain with conference title game results making it apparent the SEC would only send three teams to the New Year’s Six, with No. 12 Auburn dropping into the league’s Outback Bowl slot.
Those rankings seemingly set up a head-to-head selection between Kentucky and Tennessee for the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. Multiple reports surfaced throughout the afternoon that Kentucky would face Indiana in the Gator Bowl and Tennessee would play Louisville in the Music City Bowl.
Instead, the SEC, which assigns teams to its “Pool of Six” bowls, elected to send the Volunteers, who won the head-to-head meeting with Kentucky in November and finished two games ahead of the Wildcats in the SEC East standings, to Jacksonville, leaving the Belk Bowl as the obvious landing spot for Kentucky, which was locked out of the Music City Bowl since it played there just two years ago.
Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Tennessee was always the bowl's No. 1 preference. Tennessee athletic director Phil Fulmer said the program waffled back and forth between preferring to play in the Music City or Gator bowls before ultimately deciding on the Jacksonville game.
"I knew that we’d get a phone call mid-afternoon after the rankings came out and they would say, ‘This is where it sort of landed,’ and there would probably be not a lot of room in that. And that’s OK," Barnhart said. "We haven’t been to Charlotte before. We’re excited about it."
Kentucky’s appearance in the Belk Bowl is the fourth consecutive bowl trip for the program, marking just the second time in program history UK has played in a bowl in four straight seasons. The Wildcats went to five consecutive bowls from the 2006 to 2010 seasons.
Kentucky is 9-9 all-time in bowl games and 1-2 in the Stoops era. Stoops earned his first bowl win last season with a 27-24 victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
Simply reaching a bowl game was a noteworthy achievement for the Wildcats given that they had to replace National Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen, all-time leading rusher Benny Snell, first-team All-American Bunchy Stallings and the entire starting secondary from the 2018 Citrus Bowl squad then lost three starters, including quarterback Terry Wilson, to season-ending injuries.
After overcoming that adversity, neither of the Kentucky seniors available for interviews after the bowl announcement seemed too worried about going to Charlotte instead of Jacksonville for their final game.
"It doesn't matter to me honestly," senior guard Logan Stenberg said. "Florida was cool just because it would be warmer, but other than that it didn't make a difference to me personally."
How to get Belk Bowl tickets
Any UK season ticket holders who requested a Belk Bowl ticket during the priority request period will receive tickets. Confirmation emails were sent Sunday. Those tickets will be allocated from UK's allotment in order of K Fund priority point ranking later this week.
Remaining tickets in Kentucky’s allotment will go on sale at 9 a.m. Monday, online at UKFootballTix.com or by calling 1-800-928-2287, option 4. Tickets start at $92 each and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets in the general seating area are available through the Belk Bowl's website at BelkBowl.com/tickets.