Ring in the new year with an SEC vs. Big Ten catfight in this year’s Citrus Bowl. Kentucky is looking to hit the 10-win mark for the first time in more than four decades, while Penn State is seeking its third straight double-digit win campaign.
Mark Stoops of Kentucky has finally gotten the Wildcats (9-3) over the seven-win hump this season, but could this be a sign of things to come for the program? Boasting one of the top players in the country with linebacker Josh Allen, Stoops has the Wildcats feeling like this is about to be the new normal in Lexington. Up in Happy Valley, Penn State’s 9-3 showing is being widely considered a letdown compared to the preseason expectations and the success of the last two seasons. But all that matters for both teams this week is ending the year on a winning note.
Kentucky has ended the last two seasons with a loss in a bowl game. The Wildcats have not won a bowl game since 2008, so Kentucky is hungry and ready to bring that drought to an end. Standing in the way is a Penn State team that is just 2-2 in bowl games under James Franklin, including a loss to Kentucky’s SEC East division opponent Georgia three seasons ago.
VBRO Citrus Bowl: Kentucky (9-3) vs. Penn State (9-3)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Fla.)
Spread: Penn State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Josh Allen caps award-winning season looking for bowl win
One of the top defensive players in the nation will be suiting up for Kentucky one final time. Allen decided to play in his final game of college eligibility rather than shut it down to begin focus entirely on his NFL future. Given the accolades he has received this season, passing on the bowl game would have been expected given the trend of top college players in the bowl season, but Allen wants to close out his chapter of Kentucky football with a chance to get the Wildcats to 10 wins for the first time since 1977.
Allen heads to the Citrus Bowl with the Bednarik Award, the Lott Trophy, and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in tow. He is a consensus All-American and the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. There is nothing more for him to prove, but playing in the game shows how much he is invested in this program and how much he cares about getting Kentucky to make a little more history in his final game.
2. Trace McSorley’s curtain call for the Nittany Lions
The 2018 season may not have gone quite according to plan for Penn State's senior quarterback, but he has done his part to rewrite portions of the Penn State record book. McSorley's legacy at Penn State will not be defined by what happens in the Citrus Bowl, but the gritty and tough-nosed quarterback will likely offer some final reminders of just what he meant to this program the past few seasons.
McSorley had been banged up a bit this season, which opened the door to some conversation about whether or not James Franklin should sit him in place of a healthier Tommy Stevens. Expect McSorley to go all out no matter what his status is for his final game in a Penn State uniform. Stevens won’t be available for the game for Penn State after undergoing offseason surgery that will have him ready for the spring, so this is the McSorley show one way or the other.
3. Who has the edge at running back?
The Citrus Bowl has a good running back showcase to offer as well. Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. was the SEC’s second-leading rusher in the regular season with 1,305 yards and 14 touchdowns. Penn State’s Miles Sanders was second in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,223 yards with nine touchdowns to show for it. Both backs figure to be key players in this matchup as they look to establish the ground game against defenses that floated around the middle of their respective conferences against the run.
Both offenses tend to use their top backs in a traditional style running the ball, although both have gotten their hands on a few receptions this season. Neither back has been the kind of threat in the passing game that Penn State had with Saquon Barkley, however, so it appears the playing field is fairly even when comparing Ohio product Snell and Pennsylvania product Sanders.
This is an SEC vs. Big Ten battle that could be pretty entertaining. Both teams have racked up some good wins this season but each has stumbled against their top opponents this season. Penn State’s offense must avoid getting off to a slow start but has some options that can help mix things up against a steady Kentucky defense. On offense is where the Nittany Lions create an advantage in their favor as the PSU defense will cause problems for the Wildcats' offense often enough to lead to victory.
Prediction: Penn State 30, Kentucky 24
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.