UK's bowl game not ideal but offers positives

Dec. 6—In the days leading up to Sunday's bowl announcement, it became very evident very quickly that the Kentucky football team's postseason destinations were limited.

After going 7-5 during the regular season, the Wildcats' possibilities were narrowed to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, the Las Vegas Bowl or the Texas Bowl in Houston.

Despite what will be a second straight meeting against Iowa, and despite the timing of the contest — UK is slated to play bitter rival Louisville at the exact same time on New Year's Eve — it's off to Nashville for the Cats.

Kentucky previously played in the Music City Bowl five times, more than any other bowl contest, and sports a 2-3 record dating back to the 2017 loss to Northwestern.

As much as UK fans have fretted over the decision, Cats coach Mark Stoops didn't appear fazed during his Monday media availability. More than anything, he was grateful just to have another game left on the schedule.

"Some people may like it or not like it that we're repeat playing an Iowa team," Stoops said of facing his alma mater again, "but I know this: It will be one heck of a football game, once again. They're going to fight you tooth and nail. (Iowa head coach) Kirk Ferentz is steady as can be, the longest tenured coach in college football. A very quality program, and they have been for years.

"I know it puts our fans in a pickle, and I'm very sorry about that. There's not a lot we can do about that. For ourselves and our team, it's an honor to play in this game."

Typically, bowl-game committees try to avoid repeat matchups and repeat locations. In this case, neither one occured.

At the same time, however, UK may not be in a situation where it can afford to play somewhere new and unfamiliar.

For one, Stoops's search for a new offensive coordinator is still ongoing, and now he'll get the maximum time available to keep looking. The other possible games are scheduled for Dec. 17 and Dec. 28.

For a guy who took only 24 hours to recover from rotator-cuff surgery last week, every day matters to Stoops.

The Music City Bowl also presents a greater opportunity for recruiting — an area the Cats will surely look to improve, with only 13 commitments in the Class of 2023 so far.

"The nice thing about this for us is the timing is ideal," Stoops said. "To play a game earlier than that is difficult, with morale. To ask them to get up on Christmas morning and go to a practice is tough.

"The timing of it should work out well. It will give us time to recruit. We've been on the recruiting trail. We're hitting the recruiting trail hard for the next two weeks."

That still leaves several questions unanswered, though.

Who will call plays in the bowl game? That hasn't been decided yet, though Stoops was diplomatic in his answer that several members of the staff could step in to fill that role.

Which players will even be around still to play in the contest? Stoops didn't know that one, either but at this point, no one does. Several players have already announced or are expected to announce their intentions to enter the NCAA transfer portal or head off to the NFL draft, star quarterback Will Levis included.

If those trends continue, the Music City Bowl might be a display for the younger Cats like reserve quarterbacks Kaiya Sheron and Destin Wade to earn some extra playing time.

There are positives, of course, to a situation that seems mundane on the surface. If nothing else, Nashville is a central location for Kentucky fans, and Stoops believes Wildcats supporters will appear at both high-profile outings that day.

"I expect Rupp (Arena) to be packed for the Louisville game, and I expect us to sell our allotment of tickets and have a quality group of people there as well," he said. "There's enough Kentucky fans to be able to spread it around and support both programs, like they always do."

Is the Music City Bowl a boring destination for a postseason bid? At this point, probably.

But, for everything the program needs to accomplish this offseason, boring might be just what the Cats need right now.