Everything Virginia Tech Football Fans Need To Know About Kentucky Ahead Of Belk Bowl
It seemed like one of the more complicated Bowl selections in recent history for Virginia Tech, but alas, the Hokies have a firm destination and opponent for their 27th-straight Bowl appearance.
WHERE: Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. (Bank of America Stadium)
WHO: Kentucky Wildcats, SEC,
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 30., 12PM
First Glance at the Wildcats
Kentucky (7-5 overall, 3-5 SEC) enters the contest after another solid year under Mark Stoups. By all accounts, Kentucky won the games it should and lost to the top-tier SEC opponents it faced in 2019. There isn't a true marquee victory for Stoups' team, but victories over Arkansas, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Louisville do carry weight. As of now, Virginia Tech is listed as a 3-point favorite by Las Vegas Book makers. That feels about right as this certainly looks like a contest the Hokies should win.
Here is a quick glance at the Kentucky offense, defense and why this bowl game matters significantly more than past late-December games.
The Wildcats will test the Hokies' young defense and Bud Foster will have to draw up yet another brilliant game plan before vanishing into the sunset. Kentucky finished the regular season ranked 9th in the SEC in total offense, averaging a steady 391.50 yards per game. Mark Stoups' unit is highlighted by a formidable running game and that's no exaggeration. The Hokies have had success against the run at points this season, but obviously struggled in games where the opponents used creative strategies on the ground (UVA anyone?). In a league that spits out NFL running backs, Kentucky leads the SEC in total rushing averaging a staggering 274.42 yards per game. That's impressive to say the least.
The scary thing? Kentucky does approach the ground game with an innovative approach. Capitalizing by utilizing playmakers, deception and creative play calling has been the formula for success. This is wild, but Kentucky's leading rusher is listed as a wide receiver and he's also the third leading rusher in all of the conference. Lynn Bowden Jr. closed out the year with 1,235 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Bowden actually closed out the year as the team's starting QB but never had to throw the rock. This should trigger flashbacks to UVA and Bryce Perkins because Bowden is a freakish weapon who can take over a game at anytime. Still, the Wildcats can't mix it up and throw downfield like the 'Hoos can. Foster will be ready for the final challenge.
Running back Asim Rose is a nice change of pace and complements Bowden as the second major playmaker for Kentucky. He finished 11th in the SEC in total rushing with 757 yards and 6 touchdowns.
It's important to reiterate the why behind Kentucky's almost complete dedication to the run. After an ongoing carosuel of quarterbacks ,who quite literally made the team worse, the coaching staff was forced to adjust. The passing game is no longer existent. It's gone. In the Wildcats' 45-13 victory over Louisville to close out the regular season, there was only a single pass attempted by Kentucky and it was from Bowden (shocker), the Kentucky jack-of-all-trades.
In a college football landscape headlined by high-octane offenses with scoring placed at a premium, Kentucky feels like a blast from the past. The Wilcats make their living running the football and playing stout defense. So far, the Hendon Hooker-led Hokies offensive attack hasn't been rattled by tough defensive play (Pitt is the most glaring example), but Virginia Tech will have to bring their best game.
It would be foolish not to make Kentucky's defensive unit a major focal point. The Wildcats finished ranked third in the conference in total defense, an impressive feat considering some of the offenses they faced. The unit is led by linebacker DeAndre Square ,who leads the team with 68 tackles, two sacks an interception and forced fumble.
On the back end, Kentucky is anchored by sophomore safety Yusef Corker who is already considered one of the top defensive backs in the country. The athletic 6-foot bruiser can do it all, thriving in the passing game with one interception and four pass breakups. He may be even better the box stuffing the run. While Corker's stat line doesn't jump off the page, the 68 total tackles are telling. This dude is always around the ball wreaking havoc on opposing offenses.
WHY DOES THIS "MEANINGLESS" BOWL GAME ACTUALLY MEAN A TON?
Most Hokies' fans would have relished at a chance to play Nick Saban's Alabama squad. Others wanted a "khaki Christmas" in a hopeful showdown against Michigan. Sure, those opponents come with more glitz and glamour, but it's hard to feel great about Virginia Tech toppling either.
Why does this bowl game actually matter?
Just think about all of the recent changes -- from the quarterback to the young defense finally meshing to the coaching staff -- and let all of the factors in play sink in.
Doesn't it feel like this one just matters a whole lot?
The last thing Hokie nation needs is back-to-back losses heading into a year with fresh faces across the board. Even worse? Back-to-back losses against an average Kentucky squad.....and well... Virginia. That wouldn't sit well with anyone with ties to Blacksburg.
From a pure football perspective, the Belk Bowl serves as an opportunity for the third-youngest roster in all of college football to line up and battle against a respectable SEC opponent. Hooker -- who will be making just his 7th career start -- gets live, in-game reps against another top-tier defense. Tre Turner and Damon Hazleton will be tested by a talented secondary. The Hokies defense, from the defensive backs to the front seven, will look to put the UVA botch in the rearview mirror and execute a game plan that stifles the Wildcats' rush-heavy offense.
Oh, and then there's Fuente. The coach who seemingly teeter-totters from savior to sinner depending on the week, would close out the 2019 campaign with a victory over an ascending SEC program. That would be massive (and let the man relax just a little bit this summer).
For everyone involved with Virginia Tech football, this bowl game should be viewed as nothing but a huge opportunity just sitting there for the taking.
That is exactly what it is.