It will be the battle of the Wildcats, as Kentucky squares off against Northwestern in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. It marks just the second meeting all-time between the two schools from the SEC and Big Ten respectively. The previous meeting was in 1928, resulting in a 7-0 Northwestern victory.
Following a strong regular-season campaign and a second-place finish in the Big Ten West, the Northwestern Wildcats (9-3 overall, 7-2 Big Ten) will be making their third straight bowl appearance, and first-ever appearance in the Music City Bowl.
After starting the season 2-3, the Wildcats ride into Nashville on a wave of momentum on the heels of a seven-game winning streak. They will be in search of just their fifth 10-win season in school history, but the third such campaign under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Standing in Northwestern’s way will be a Kentucky team that is no stranger to Nashville, making its fifth-ever appearance in the Music City Bowl (2-2 in previous games). The SEC Wildcats also will be making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since the 2009-10 seasons.
Kentucky didn’t finish 2017 quite as strong as it started, losing three of its final four contests. However, Mark Stoops' team (7-5 overall, 4-4 SEC) still managed to parlay a successful season into a third-place finish in the SEC East and a second consecutive bowl appearance. The goal now is to get past a red-hot Northwestern team. If successful, it would mark Kentucky’s first bowl victory since the 2008 season and first eight-win campaign since '07.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Kentucky vs. Northwestern
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Northwestern -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Justin Jackson vs. Kentucky run defense
Jackson has already achieved legendary status in Evanston. And it would only be fitting for the senior running back to end a storied career with a bang. Jackson is not only Northwestern’s career leader in rushing yards (5,283) and rushing touchdowns (39), he is just the ninth player in college football history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons (second player in Big Ten history to do it). His 6,131 career yards from scrimmage rank second in Big Ten history, trailing only College Football Hall of Famer Ron Dayne.
After posting a combined 310 rushing yards in Northwestern’s final two regular season games, Jackson needs just 17 in the Music City Bowl to become the conference's third-leading rusher all time. As for his competition, Kentucky began the season with one of the top run defenses in the nation, allowing just 369 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in their first five games combined. The Wildcats also didn’t allow a single 100-yard rusher during that period.
Unfortunately, the SEC’s Wildcats were unable to sustain their edge against opposing ground attacks down the stretch. Georgia and Louisville gashed Kentucky for a combined 727 rushing yards and eight touchdowns to close out the regular season. Georgia alone rushed for 381 yards and five touchdowns, more than the Wildcats allowed in their first five games combined. If the Kentucky run defense can’t figure out how to return to early-season form in the Music City Bowl, Jackson could end a remarkable career with a legendary performance.
2. Benny Snell Jr. vs. Northwestern run defense
Jackson won’t be the only record-setting running back playing in the Music City Bowl. In just his sophomore season, Snell (above, right) already has more rushing touchdowns (31) than any other player in Kentucky history. His 18 rushing touchdowns this season rank first in the SEC. And Snell trails Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson by just two yards in the race to become the SEC’s leading rusher for 2017. Additionally, Snell is the first Kentucky running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Which means that the Music City Bowl will feature two running backs that have never posted fewer than 1,000 yards in any of their six combined seasons.
While Snell is a handful for any defense, he could have a tough row to hoe against Northwestern. The Wildcats rank 11th in the nation against the run (111.3 ypg). And unlike Kentucky, the Northwestern run defense was at its best down the stretch. During its seven-game winning streak to close out the regular season, Northwestern gave up just one rushing touchdown, allowing only 94.3 rushing yards per contest.
They’ve held up well against elite running backs this season as well, limiting Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor to 80 yards, and one-time Heisman front-runner Saquon Barkley to just 75 on the ground. In fact, Northwestern hasn’t allowed any running back to run for more than 96 yards in a game all season. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones did post 106 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Wildcats early in the season. That could bode well for Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, who is a very capable runner (358 yards, 3 TDs).
3. The Quarterbacks
Speaking of Johnson, the senior signal-caller could be the x-factor in this game for Kentucky. But like Kentucky's run defense, Johnson will need to rekindle his early-season mojo to make that happen, especially through the air. In Johnson’s first six games, he threw for 1,238 yards, nine touchdowns and had just two interceptions. In his past six games, Johnson threw for just 811 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The good news is that this matchup holds promise if Johnson can return to early-season form. Northwestern is suspect at best when it comes to defending the pass, allowing 247.6 passing yards per game (ranked 98th in the FBS). Johnson’s mobility could cause problems as well. Northwestern has struggled at times against dual-threat quarterbacks in recent seasons.
Clayton Thorson (right), a three-year starter at quarterback for Northwestern, has been hit and miss throughout an inconsistent junior campaign. At times, he’s looked every bit the part of a legitimate NFL prospect, while the struggle has been real on other occasions. His 15:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio leaves plenty to be desired as well.
Fortunately, Thorson also has an opportunity to close out the season on a high note with a favorable matchup. Kentucky has given up 263.5 passing yards per game, which places the Wildcats 112th out of 129 FBS teams. Thorson should be able to find consistent passing lanes against a shaky Kentucky secondary en route to a solid performance. His biggest obstacle will come in the form of Kentucky’s “Blitz Bros.” Josh Allen and Denzil Ware are a dangerous pass-rushing duo, as they have combined for 13.5 sacks this season.
This will probably feel like a home game for Kentucky with the short drive for Big Blue Nation to Nashville. Unfortunately, that might be the only advantage for the Wildcats from the SEC. Kentucky ranks 103rd in the nation in total offense and 89th nationally in total defense. And after suffering two blowout losses to end the regular season, it’s difficult to like Big Blue’s chances against a red-hot Northwestern team that has rattled off seven straight wins. The Big Ten Wildcats also match up well against Kentucky’s biggest strength (running back Benny Snell Jr.). Quarterback Stephen Johnson is the x-factor that can keep it close for Kentucky, but that won’t be enough in the end, as the Wildcats' duo of RB Justin Jackson and QB Clayton Thorson prove to be too much.
Prediction: Northwestern 27, Kentucky 23
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.