Kentucky football to face NC State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON - A year after being snubbed by the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, Kentucky football is heading to Jacksonville, Florida, to face NC State in this season's edition of the game.

"We are very excited to accept a bid to the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl," UK coach Mark Stoops said in a news release. "I want to thank the Gator Bowl for the invitation and I want to thank our administration, Dr. Eli Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart, for their unwavering support this season. It’s been a very trying year for all of us and our team is ready to move forward with a fifth straight bowl game. We look forward to playing a great team in NC State. I’ve known Coach (Dave) Doeren a long time and I have great respect for him and his program."

Kentucky's trip to the Gator Bowl comes a year after the Wildcats looked headed to the 2019 edition of the game only to be pushed out by Tennessee at the last minute. Kentucky last played in the game after the 2016 season.

The bid marks the second time in program history Kentucky football has reached a bowl in five consecutive seasons and the first time one coach has led the Wildcats to five straight bowl games. The Wildcats are eligible for a bowl despite their 4-6 record because the NCAA removed the normal requirement that teams finish with at least a .500 record for bowl eligibility for the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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While Kentucky finished with a losing record in the regular season, it went 4-4 against teams on the original 2020 schedule. Had the coronavirus pandemic not pushed the SEC to move to a conference-only format, the Wildcats would have needed just two wins from its four original non-conference games against Louisville, Kent State, Eastern Michigan and FCS Eastern Illinois to reach the normal six-win threshold for bowl eligibility had it finished with the same record against its original SEC opponents.

The Wildcats last played in the Gator Bowl in 2016, a 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech. That game was the first bowl appearance of the Stoops era.

"The University of Kentucky is very honored to represent the Southeastern Conference in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl,” UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in the release.  "Having had the opportunity to be in the game in 2016, we have so much respect for Rick Catlett and his staff. Rick has been an incredible friend of college football and we appreciate all he has done.

"For UK, we’re excited about moving our football program forward with a fifth-straight bowl game. This has been a challenging year and to complete the season in the Gator Bowl is an incredible opportunity." 

UK is 1-1 all-time against NC State, with the last meeting coming in the 1970 season, a 27-2 Kentucky win.

The version of Kentucky that takes the field in the bowl game may not closely resemble the one that played in the regular season.

Stoops fired offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw after the regular season finale. New offensive coordinator Liam Coen will not coach in the bowl game as he remains with the Los Angeles Rams through their NFL playoff run. The remaining offensive coaches are expected to use Gran's playbook for the game with tight ends coach Vince Marrow calling plays.

As of Sunday, no UK players had opted out of playing the bowl game since the regular season finale. Sophomore cornerback Kelvin Joseph already opted out of the final regular season game to start preparing for the draft.

While more than 15 teams chose not to participate in bowls this season, Kentucky relished the opportunity for one more game despite the fact that none of the normal pre-bowl events will be available for players due to the pandemic.

"This is an opportunity to continue to step forward in our program and our conference," Barnhart said. "We finished in the middle of the pack in the SEC. We had four conference wins in a really, really difficult league. I think that in a normal year that would equate to being in a bowl game and postseason play.

"We wanted an opportunity for those young men that want to compete one more time and have an opportunity to showcase their skills on a national stage in an NFL stadium against a really, really top-flight opponent."

Limited tickets for the game are available for purchase directly from TaxSlayerGatorBowl.com. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, capacity at TIAA Bank Field will be reduced and safety protocols will be in place. 

The game will kickoff at noon on January 2 and be televised by ESPN.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ