In the event this weekend’s conference championship games play out according to script, Kentucky football looks likely to spend Christmas week in Charlotte, North Carolina, preparing for the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
But multiple scenarios remain in play where that bowl destination could be thrown into flux in the event of unexpected results this weekend.
“Like every bowl week, there’s always a lot of moving parts,” Danny Morrison, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which operates the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, told the Herald-Leader this week. “It never fails that there’s some kind of pivoting and movement within the different scenarios that are presented.
“But, let me just say this about Kentucky: We loved having Kentucky here in 2019. Great crowd, great experience. An excellent game. So, we’d be thrilled with Kentucky if it works out that way.”
Kentucky last played in the Charlotte bowl game in 2019 when it was still known as the Belk Bowl. That game featured one of the best individual performances in bowl history from wide receiver turned quarterback Lynn Bowden and an exciting finish in a come-from-behind win over Virginia Tech.
ESPN, The Athletic, Yahoo Sports, Athlon, Bleacher Report, 247Sports and the Action Network all have Kentucky in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in their most recent projections.
The SEC’s bowl selection process makes that pairing the most likely outcome based on the current College Football Playoff committee rankings.
No. 1 Georgia, No. 8 Alabama and No. 9 Missouri are all in position for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. That would leave No. 11 Ole Miss for the Citrus Bowl, which has first pick of SEC teams after the playoff committee fills the New Year’s Six games.
The SEC then moves to a group of games called the “Pool of Six” that includes the ReliaQuest Bowl (Jan. 1; Tampa, Florida), TaxSlayer Gator Bowl (Dec. 29; Jacksonville, Florida), Tax Act Texas Bowl (Dec. 27; Houston, Texas); Transperfect Music City Bowl (Dec. 30; Nashville, Tennessee), AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Dec. 29; Memphis, Tennessee) and Duke’s Mayo Bowl (Dec. 27; Charlotte, North Carolina). The six games all have equal weight in the process, but the ReliaQuest Bowl, formerly known as the Outback Bowl, is usually teams’ top target thanks to its status as a New Year’s Day bowl played in Florida.
The SEC takes feedback from schools and bowls to make its assignments to the “Pool of Six” games while working to avoid repeat trips and matchups in a short window. Kentucky will almost certainly not play in the Music City Bowl this season because it played there a year ago.
No. 13 LSU would be the obvious pick for the ReliaQuest Bowl. No. 21 Tennessee would then probably prioritize the Gator Bowl as the other Florida bowl game in the pool. The SEC has sent a West Division team to the Texas Bowl in years where one was available, making Texas A&M an obvious choice this year while the Aggies focus on a coaching transition. Auburn would then be left for the Music City Bowl, leaving Kentucky for the Duke’s Mayo or Liberty bowls. In years the SEC has not had enough eligible teams to fill its “Pool of Six” games, as probably will be the case this year, the Liberty Bowl has taken a team from another conference instead.
How weekend chaos could change Kentucky football bowl projection
There remain at least three scenarios — albeit unlikely ones — that could throw the “Pool of Six” pairings into flux.
If No. 16 Iowa upsets No. 2 Michigan in the Big Ten title game and No. 18 Oklahoma State upsets No. 7 Texas in the Big 12 title game, both Iowa and Oklahoma State would clinch New Year’s Six bids regardless of their ranking as conference champions. If the playoff committee chooses not to drop Michigan and Texas behind the two-loss teams that are not playing this weekend, that would leave one of Missouri or Alabama (if the Crimson Tide lose to Georgia in the SEC championship) without an available spot in the New Year’s Six games. The remaining at-large berths after conference champions are slotted in the games automatically go to the highest-ranked teams available.
The lower ranked of Alabama and Missouri would fall to the Citrus Bowl. Ole Miss would fall into the “Pool of Six” (likely to the ReliaQuest Bowl) and there would be enough bowl eligible SEC teams to send a team to the Liberty Bowl. Kentucky might be the team that ends up in Memphis due to geographic proximity and being tied for the worst conference record of the bowl eligible SEC teams.
The other scenarios to watch this weekend involve good news for the top tier of the SEC.
The playoff committee slotted undefeated Florida State fourth in Tuesday’s ranking despite an uninspiring performance in a rivalry win over Florida in the first game since a season-ending injury to quarterback Jordan Travis. If Florida State looks sluggish again this weekend in beating No. 14 Louisville in the ACC championship game while No. 5 Oregon avenges its earlier loss to No. 3 Washington in a close Pac-12 title game, it is at least possible the committee would consider putting both Pac-12 teams in the playoff ahead of a Florida State team now missing its star quarterback.
The committee has never left an undefeated conference champion out of the playoff in favor of a one-loss team, so that decision would be unprecedented. If it did happen, Florida State would then play in the Orange Bowl as the ACC champion, knocking Louisville out of the ACC’s automatic bid for that game and opening a New Year’s Six at-large berth to No. 11 Ole Miss.
Ole Miss could also theoretically move into a New Year’s Six spot if Oklahoma State beat Texas in decisive enough fashion for the committee to drop the Longhorns behind the Rebels. For that to happen, Alabama might also need to beat Georgia, since Texas has a head-to-head win over Alabama on its resume and might remain ahead of the Crimson Tide if both teams had two losses.
With Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Ole Miss all in the New Year’s Six, the remaining SEC teams would each jump up a notch in the bowl selection process. LSU would likely be the pick for the Citrus Bowl, leaving Tennessee for the ReliaQuest Bowl. There has never been a year where the SEC only had four bowl eligible teams for its “Pool of Six” games under the current selection process, so it is unclear which game would join the Liberty Bowl in replacing its SEC slot with a team from another league, but Kentucky could return to a Florida game in that scenario in the Gator Bowl if the SEC sends Texas A&M to the Texas Bowl.
“A lot of the moving parts have to do with how many are up in the New Year’s Six,” Morrison said. “It’s pretty likely that the SEC will have three, but very well could have four. So, you don’t know. We’re doing like every other bowl is doing. We’re looking at various scenarios that are out there.”
In the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Kentucky would face an ACC foe.
Virginia Tech and Duke are among the ACC teams projected in the game at various websites. Both would bring interesting storylines to the field against the Wildcats.
A matchup with Virginia Tech would be a repeat of the 2019 game, which saw Bowden throw a punch in a pregame fight. He was not ejected because the incident occurred more than an hour before kickoff, but the NCAA has since changed its rules to prevent a similar scenario happening again.
A matchup with Duke would surely resurface the drama of last weekend that saw UK coach Mark Stoops reportedly on the verge of accepting the Texas A&M job only to stay in Lexington. The Aggies eventually hired Duke coach Mike Elko instead.
“What we all try to do in the bowl world is we’re all kind of like people in a conference where you compete and you cooperate at the same time,” Morrison said. “So, in a best-case scenario things work out favorably for all the bowls. I will say this, there’s a constant theme if you look at bowl games outside of the (playoff): Geography matters. So, I think that’s really, really important. Where fans have the opportunity to drive versus fly.”
Charlotte is just more than a six-hour drive from Lexington. There are also multiple direct flights to the city each day from all three major airports in Kentucky due to Charlotte’s status as a hub airport for American Airlines.
Geography did not help attendance last season for Kentucky’s appearance in the Music City Bowl with the third-lowest crowd in any of the games played at the Tennessee Titans’ home stadium, but for now at least there is more excitement for UK heading into this bowl season after the upset of a top-10 Louisville team in the regular season finale and Stoops electing to stay in Lexington. Running back Ray Davis and offensive guard Kenneth Horsey have already opted out of the game, but most of UK’s star players look likely to play, unlike a year ago when all three of UK’s 2023 NFL draft picks opted out of the bowl.
UK will learn its bowl destination Sunday after the playoff committee reveals its final top 25 ranking.
“Mitch Barnhart has been a friend of mine for a long time,” Morrison said. “I think he’s one of the best ADs in the country. Then Mark Stoops and the job he’s done with that Kentucky football program speaks for itself. So, we’d be thrilled to have Kentucky.”
Kentucky football bowl projections
247Sports (Brad Crawford): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Duke
Action Network (Brett McMurphy): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Virginia Tech
The Athletic (Stewart Mandel and Scott Dochterman): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Virginia Tech
Athlon (Steve Lassan): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Duke
Bleacher Report (David Kenyon): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Georgia Tech
CBSSports (Jerry Palm): Texas Bowl vs. Kansas State
ESPN (Mark Schlabach and Kyle Bonagura): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech
Fox Sports (Bryan Fischer): Liberty Bowl vs. Kansas State
USA Today (Erick Smith): Music City Bowl vs. Maryland
Yahoo Sports (Nick Bromberg): Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Duke