Three takeaways from the announcement that Kentucky will play Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 29 in Jacksonville, Florida:
1. The Gator Bowl trumps the Duke’s Mayo Bowl
All the pre-bowl announcement speculation had the Kentucky football team headed to Charlotte in hopes of earning the right to watch a bucket of Duke’s Mayo being poured on the head of coach Mark Stoops.
There was one problem with that scenario. The date of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl is Dec. 27. For those counting, that’s two days after Christmas. Not saying the date would keep Kentucky fans from traveling to Charlotte. It might keep more Kentucky fans from traveling to Charlotte, however.
The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl date is Dec. 29. A much better date. In a much better place. The Gator Bowl is in Jacksonville. And Jacksonville is in Florida. The Sunshine State. In December. Complete with a beach. Considering the desirable date and location and opponent (see takeaway No. 2), I expect Kentucky fans to travel.
(Note: Yes, the Kentucky men’s basketball team plays Illinois State at Rupp Arena on Dec. 29, the same date as the Gator Bowl. That’s not much of a conflict. Again, we repeat, the Gator Bowl is in Florida. In December.)
2. Clemson is an attractive opponent
True, this is not a vintage Clemson football team. The Tigers have lost four games this season. That’s the most football games Clemson has lost in a season since 2011. In fact, from its national title team of 2016 through its national title team of 2018, the Tigers lost all of three games. Clemson was 14-1 in ‘16, 12-2 in ‘17 and 15-0 in ‘18.
Still, this is Clemson. And Clemson is a name brand in college football. And Clemson has one of those you-either-love-him-or-hate-him coaches in Dabo Swinney. Even those who don’t care much for Dabo have to admit the 54-year-old Alabama native is 169-43 as a head coach, including a 103-23 in the ACC. He’s won a lot of football games.
Because of that, Clemson draws a lot of attention. And that will bring attention to the Gator Bowl matchup, which will in turn bring attention to a Kentucky team that suffered a disappointing regular season with an uplifting conclusion, i.e. the 38-31 upset of Louisville. Back-to-back wins over Louisville and Clemson would put a different spin on 2023. (See takeaway No. 3.)
3. Winning this bowl game matters
Normally, I don’t put much stock in the outcome of a particular bowl game. There are too many mitigating factors. Usually, only one team is happy to be there. Plus, in this modern world, there are opt-outs, players who decide they’d rather not play another college football game. UK already has two this season — running back Ray Davis and cornerback Andru Phillips.
Will Levis was an opt-out last season. So did Chris Rodriguez. Levis was Kentucky’s quarterback, of course. So UK started true freshman Destin Wade. Rodriguez was the team’s leading rusher. Therefore, that the Cats lost to Iowa 21-0 in the Music City Bowl wasn’t that big of a deal. It said little to nothing about the direction of the program.
This year is different. For one thing, Devin Leary is expected to play in the bowl game. The UK quarterback has never played in a bowl game. While at North Carolina State, he missed two bowl games because of injury (N.C. Sate’s 23-21 loss to UK in the 2020 Gator Bowl and State’s 16-12 loss to Maryland in the 2022 Duke’s Mayo Bowl) and another via a COVID cancellation (2021 Holiday Bowl). Plus, Leary’s NFL draft stock could use an impressive showing against a quality defense. The Gator Bowl presents such an opportunity.
It also presents an opportunity for Mark Stoops’ team to finish 8-5 and close out the season with a victory over a marquee opponent, in the sunshine of Florida. In a city with a beach. Not bad.