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Gator Bowl Prediction and Preview: NC State vs. Kentucky

Gator Bowl Prediction and Preview: NC State vs. Kentucky

Gator Bowl Prediction and Preview: NC State vs. Kentucky

Both the NC State Wolfpack and the Kentucky Wildcats ended the 2020 regular season on a positive note.

NC State (8-3) defeated Georgia Tech in its last game, 23-13, on Dec. 5. Kentucky (4-6) also was victorious, beating South Carolina 41-18 on the same day. 

The two teams will hope they can carry their good fortunes over when they meet in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Jan. 2. 

Although NC State comes into this game with a better regular-season record, Kentucky is the favorite. One reason why is four of the Wildcats' six losses this season have come against ranked opponents. 

NC State finished 2-3 against ranked teams, but didn't face Clemson or Notre Dame in ACC play this season. 

Saturday will mark only the third time NC State and Kentucky have faced each other. The previous two meetings, which took place way back in 1970 and 1909, were split.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl: NC State (8-3) vs. Kentucky (4-6)

Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 12 p.m. ET

Where: TIAA Bank Field (Jacksonville, Fla.)

TV: ESPN

Spread: Kentucky -2.5

When NC State Has the Ball

The Wolfpack come into this game averaging 31.1 points per contest. Quarterback Bailey Hockman has been playing his best football recently. He has recorded two straight 300-yard performances and for the season has thrown for 1,820 yards, 12 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. 

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Kentucky, on the other hand, is 1-4 when allowing more than 230 passing yards. Hockman has exceeded that mark in four of his last five games with NC State going 4-1 in that span.

Behind him, Hockman has a pretty talented group of running backs. Zonovan "Bam" Knight leads the Wolfpack in rushing with 736 yards and nine touchdowns. Ricky Person Jr. is second with 635 yards on a team-high 141 attempts along with four scores on the ground. Overall, the Wolfpack are averaging 129.1 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. 

Hockman and wide receiver Emeka Emezie have formed a nice combination in the passing game. Emezie has 42 receptions for 694 yards and five touchdowns on the season.

Fifth in the SEC in both scoring (26.4 ppg) and total (387.0 ypg) defense this season, Kentucky is No. 1 in the conference against the pass (220.3 ypg). The Wildcats have a solid secondary although it will be without cornerback Kelvin Joseph, who opted out to focus on the upcoming NFL draft. He was responsible for four of the team's 13 interceptions, which are tied for the most in the SEC. In the front seven, senior linebacker Jamar Watson leads the way in sacks (5.0) and tackles for a loss (9.0).

When Kentucky Has the Ball

Kentucky's offense has been one of the worst in the SEC, particularly through the air. The Wildcats' 124.1 passing yards per game are not only by far the worst mark in the conference, but it's also the worst of any Power 5 conference member and only six other teams have produced fewer on average with four of those (Georgia Southern, Navy, Air Force, Army) intentionally running option-oriented attacks. The inability to do much throwing the ball is a big reason why Kentucky enters this game with a losing record.

Fortunately, the Wildcats have fared better on the ground, averaging 187.4 rushing yards per game. Sophomore running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. leads the way with 701 yards and nine touchdowns, as he's averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Asim Rose is second with 518 yards and Kavosiey Smoke (4.9 ypc) has chipped in as well. Quarterback Terry Wilson has been more effective as a runner than a passer, as he's posted 410 yards and five scores on the ground.

Kentucky will face an NC State defense that has fared better against the run than the pass. The Wolfpack are giving up 163.6 rushing yards per game but only 4.1 yards per carry, compared to 254.6 yards per game through the air along with 20 touchdown passes vs. 10 interceptions. But this unit will be without its best player on Tuesday. Junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill, an Associated Press second-team All-American and graded by Pro Football Focus as the most effective interior defensive lineman in the country, has already announced his intent to declare for the draft and is skipping the bowl game.

Final Analysis 

If Kentucky is going to defeat NC State, the Wildcats will need a lot of help from their defense, especially in the turnover battle. UK has a strong rushing attack and the Wolfpack defense will be without its defensive anchor.

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So this game could come down to if Wildcats quarterback Terry Wilson can make plays with his arm. If he can, then Kentucky has a chance to pull off the victory. But that has not been a winning formula for the 'Cats this season whereas NC State enters this game with more momentum having won four in a row. The Wolfpack make it five straight on Tuesday down in Jacksonville.

Prediction: NC State 35, Kentucky 27

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— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.