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From a Kentucky perspective the Citrus Bowl is Super!

by J.W. Miller on 12/31/18

I am certain you are anxiously awaiting New Years Day when No. 14 Kentucky takes on No. 12 Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. No? Well, it’s not exactly a marquee bowl in the College Football Playoffs scheme, but it is the most prestigious bowl to invite the Wildcats since the 1999 Outback Bowl. (Yes, I remember, Penn State beat Kentucky in that one, because brother Jerry and I were sitting in Raymond James Stadium that day.) But it’s all a matter of perspective. 


One man’s Citrus Bowl or Fiesta Bowl may be another team’s toilet bowl, which is the way some of my LSU friends see their matchup with Central Florida tomorrow. I get that, because Big Blue Nation sees the NCAA basketball tournament the same way. LSU and a lot of other schools would love to play in the NCAA basketball final 16 which Kentucky fans see as a speed bump on the way to the Final Four. But, like I said, it’s all perspective. Frankly,  Kentucky football fans regard the Citrus Bowl as their Super Bowl! 


Big Blue Nation has reason to show some optimism over its long-suffering football program. Kentucky went 9-3, its best season since Jimmy Carter was President, and probably left some money on the table in losses at Texas A&M and Tennessee. But when was the last time that the Wildcats were actually being talked about in the same breath as Georgia when the two teams met to decide first place in the SEC Eastern Division. The Dogs prevailed, but just being there suggests that Kentucky football has turned a corner it has been peeking around, maybe since Bear Bryant hung his hounds tooth hat in Lexington. 


The thing that speaks loudest about Kentucky’s possible arrival into the upper tier of the SEC is recruiting. Good players make good coaches, and good players win championships. And while it’s going to take Kentucky a few more seasons like 2018 to be taken seriously, Coach Mark Stoops and his staff at least are competing with the big boys for players. 


A recent recruiting roundup in the New Orleans Times-Picayune confirmed such when the reporter wrote: “Amite athlete Devonta Lee is one LSU expects to land … and though Kentucky is making a big push for him, LSU is considered the favorite.” The next paragraph discussed Georgia cornerback Jay Ward, whom the newspaper said “was a Kentucky commitment, but now LSU is considered the team to beat.” The story did not mention that Lee’s high school teammate, dual-threat QB Amani Gilmore, has signed with the Wildcats. Kentucky might not get Lee or Ward or many other recruits that other teams covet, but it is well beyond the days when they competed with the likes of East Carolina, Louisiana Lafayette and Tulane for players. 


Of course, there’s a long way to go. Rivals.com’s SEC rankings after the December 19 signing day ranked Kentucky No. 12 among the 14 SEC schools. That’s about where you should be ranked with zero five-star recruits and four four-star recruits. Compare that with top-ranked Alabama with three five-stars and 22 four-stars; second-ranked Georgia with five five-stars and 14 four-stars or LSU’s three five-stars and 10 four-stars. Stoops will counter that his recruiters have been successful at picking up lower-rated players and developing them into five-star status. 


There is sufficient evidence to support the sign-and-develop theory. Kentucky’s three best players include Josh Allen, a likely high NFL first-round pick who won multiple post-season awards as the top defensive player and linebacker in the nation. Allen came to Kentucky as a two-star recruit with his only other offer from that gridiron juggernaut, Monmouth. RB Benny Snell, who garnered first-team all-SEC as well as All-America honors, was a three-star recruit in 2016, while offensive guard Bunchy Stallings, another three-star in 2014, was named first-team All-SEC this year. I don't know if that strategy breeds loyalty, but not one is passing up the bowl game although more Wildcats could be drafted next spring than any previous year. 


LSU fans may be disappointed their team is not playing for the national title, but to Kentucky, the Citrus Bowl provides a hint of what its program could become. And at least for now, Big Blue Nation is just happy to be here. Like I said earlier, it’s all a matter of perspective.

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