Kentucky football returning to Gator Bowl to face Clemson after playoff chaos

The College Football Playoff committee’s unprecedented decision to leave undefeated Florida State out of the four-team playoff ended up benefiting Kentucky’s bowl destination.

With Florida State out of the playoff and in the Orange Bowl, No. 11 Ole Miss was able to take the last New Year’s Six bowl berth. Ole Miss in the New Year’s Six meant the other SEC teams moved up a rung in the league’s selection process.

After weeks of trending toward the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, North Carolina, Kentucky will instead return to Florida for its bowl game with a matchup against Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 29 in Jacksonville.

Kentucky last played in the Gator Bowl in 2020, but attendance at that game was limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kentucky also played in the Gator Bowl in 2016, the first bowl game of the Wildcats’ current eight-season bowl streak. Kentucky beat N.C. State in the game in 2020 but lost to Georgia Tech in 2016.

UK has played in a Florida bowl game five times in the last eight years.

The unexpected return to a Florida bowl continues a string of positive news for Kentucky at the end of what had been a disappointing 2023 season through 11 games.

The Wildcats upset a top-10 Louisville team in the annual Governor’s Cup rivalry game to close the regular season. Later that night after reports suggested coach Mark Stoops was on the verge of leaving Kentucky for Texas A&M, Stoops announced he would return to Lexington just after 1 a.m.

Now the matchup with No. 22 Clemson represents another opportunity to rewrite the narrative of a season that had raised questions about Kentucky’s inability to compete with the top tier of SEC teams.

UK is 4-3 in bowl games with Stoops as head coach. The Wildcats won four consecutive bowl games from 2018 to 2021 but were shut out in the Music City Bowl against Iowa last season after all three of its 2023 NFL draft picks, including quarterback Will Levis, opted out of the game.

Kentucky’s roster for the Gator Bowl is again likely to look far different from the one that took the field against Louisville.

Running back Ray Davis, offensive guard Kenneth Horsey and cornerback Andru Phillips have already opted out of the game to begin preparing for the NFL draft. Seven Wildcats have already announced plans to enter the transfer portal, and more departures are expected after the portal officially opens to players yet to graduate Monday.

Quarterback Devin Leary signaled prior to the Louisville game he does plan to play in the bowl though. Leary has yet to play in a bowl game in college, missing multiple opportunities due to injury while at N.C. State. Leary and N.C. State missed out on the chance to play in the 2021 Holiday Bowl when the game was canceled just hours before kickoff due to a COVID-19 outbreak within opponent UCLA’s program.

“This one, I’m going to live it up,” Leary said before the Louisville game. “I can’t wait for the experience. Being able to go out and actually play in a bowl game is kind of like a dream come true.”

Leary was 1-2 against Clemson while at N.C. State. One of his best games did come against the Tigers with 238 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 2021 win.

The opt outs and transfers could provide an opportunity for young players who did not play a significant role on the field during Kentucky’s regular season to be showcased in the bowl after several weeks of practice.

While Kentucky might have a number of new faces playing in the game, it will it at least have some consistency on the sideline.

The Gator Bowl will be Stoops’ first game since the Texas A&M saga.

While there has been much debate about whether Stoops actually turned down Texas A&M or only removed his name from consideration after it became clear negative fan reaction to the potential hire in College Station was going to lead the administration to look elsewhere anyway, Stoops’ return combined with the Louisville win has added some much needed energy to the program.

Louisville is the only team Kentucky beat in the regular season that reached bowl eligibility. The Wildcats were blown out by Georgia and Alabama and lost to South Carolina, which did not reach a bowl, for a second consecutive season.

Against Clemson, Kentucky will have a chance to prove any struggles in the SEC do not extend to other games. UK has won 25 of its last 26 games against nonconference opponents. It is 7-0 against ACC teams since 2018 with five of those wins coming against Louisville.

There could be at least one familiar face to local fans on the Clemson sideline: former Frederick Douglass offensive lineman Walker Parks, who started every game he played in the last three seasons, but suffered a season-ending injury in September.

Remaining tickets from UK’s bowl allotment will go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. at UKFootballTix.com or by calling 800-928-2287. Tickets outside UK’s allotted section are also available at TaxSlayerGatorBowl.com.

“The Big Blue Nation always represents at our bowl destination and we are excited to spend time in Jacksonville,” Stoops said in a news release. “We look forward to a great week and our team can’t wait to play one more time this season.”

2023-24 bowl schedule

View dates, sites, matchups, kickoff times and TV networks for all of this season’s games.

Next game

Kentucky vs. No. 22 Clemson

What: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

When: Dec. 29 at noon

Where: EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Series: Kentucky leads 8-5

Last meeting: Clemson won 21-13 on Dec. 27, 2009, in the Music City Bowl at Nashville, Tennessee

2023-24 bowl schedule

View dates, sites, matchups, kickoff times and TV networks for all of this season’s games.

Next game

Kentucky vs. No. 22 Clemson

What: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

When: Dec. 29 at noon

Where: EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Series: Kentucky leads 8-5

Last meeting: Clemson won 21-13 on Dec. 27, 2009, in the Music City Bowl at Nashville, Tennessee

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