First Meeting In 50 Years
There’s no question 2020 has been a season like no other. As a result, making a bowl game has more meaning than most years. When Kentucky and North Carolina State meet on Saturday in Jacksonville it’s not only one more than a chance to play, it’s a celebration of making it through this crazy year. For the Wildcats it’s a history-making contest while the Wolfpack looks for a third nine-win season in the last four years. Let’s look at both teams and give a prediction with our 2021 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl Preview. But first, let’s look at the history of the game.
A Word From Our Sponsor
The Gator Bowl began in 1946 making it the sixth oldest college bowl game. The game has been sponsored by TaxSlayer since 2012 and has been known as the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl since 2018. Each year it matches up a team from the SEC against either an ACC or Big 10 team. In the very first Gator Bowl, Wake Forest beat South Carolina 26-14. Now that we’ve given you a little history of the game let’s run down the Wildcats.
Looking At Kentucky
Playing an all-SEC schedule in 2020 Mark Stoops’ Cats finished the season with a 4-6 record. Of course any other year four wins wouldn’t get you to a bowl game. However, 2020 isn’t any ordinary year. When they hit the field on Saturday they’ll have a new person calling the plays. Following their 41-18 win over South Carolina in the Cats regular-season finale Stoops made a coaching change. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darrin Hinshaw were let go.
While Kentucky does have a new man ready to go in L.A. Rams quarterbacks coach Liam Coen, he won’t be in Lexington until after the Rams’ season ends. As a result, tight ends coach Vince Marrow will call the plays for the Gator Bowl. While it gives UK an element of surprise you shouldn’t expect a lot of craziness from the Cats. Although, there might be more throwing to the tight ends. The Big Blue Nation knows that means good things usually happen.
— Anna Maria Tarullo (@tarullotweets) December 30, 2020
Saturday’s game likely marks the end of Terry Wilson’s career in Lexington. Stoops already said the senior will start the Gator Bowl. However, look for Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen to see action as well. Even with Marrow calling the plays look for a steady diet of the running game with Christopher Rodriguez and A.J. Rose. Behind the “Big Blue Wall” the two have combined for over 1,200 yards and nine scores. When Wilson does throw it his favorite target is Josh Ali, who has 48 receptions on the year. Thanks to the COVID-19 rules where all college players get an extra season Ali hinted he could return for another year.
As we continue our 2021 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl preview let’s now look at North Carolina State.
Scouting The Wolfpack
Under Coach Dave Doeron, North Carolina State heads to Jacksonville with an 8-3 record and on a four-game winning streak. Going 7-3 in league play the Wolfpack season featured wins over Pittsburgh, Virginia, and Wake Forest. However, the biggest win on the season came on November 21st when they handed Liberty its only loss 15-14. The same Flames squad that just knocked off Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl.
Quarterback Bailey Hockman leads the offense. On the season the junior threw for 1,820 yards and 12 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Behind Hockman are running backs Ricky Person Jr. and Zonovan Knight. As a sophomore Knight leads the Wolfpack attack with 736 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. Person added another 646 yards and four more scores.
When Hockman throws the ball his favorite target is Emaka Emezie. The senior has 42 receptions on the season for 694 yards and four touchdowns. In addition, he averages a whopping 17 yards per catch. Junior Thayer Thomas had 39 catches for 483 yards and six touchdowns. On the season the Wolfpack average 264 yards per contest which ranks 37th in all of college football. Kentucky’s strong secondary has its work cut out for them on Saturday.
Saturday’s game marks the 20th bowl game in Kentucky football history. The Wildcats are 10-9 all-time and have won two in a row. Two years ago the Cats capped the best season in 41 years with a 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. Last season they rallied in the final minute to beat Virginia Tech to win the Belk Bowl 37-30, a game voted the best of last bowl season.
For Stoops, he becomes the first Kentucky coach to go to five straight bowls. While the Cats played in five straight between 2006-2010 the first four came under Rich Brooks and the final under Joker Phillips. In addition, this is the Wildcats’ second trip to Jacksonville. They started this run playing Georgia Tech in the 2016 Gator Bowl. However, Kentucky fell behind early and never recovered losing 33-18.
On the other side of the ball, this is the Wolfpack’s 33rd bowl game. Overall NC State sports a 17-14-1 record. In addition, this is its fifth appearance in the Gator Bowl where the team is 1-3. The lone win came in 2003 when it knocked off Notre Dame 28-6. That team was led by quarterback Philip Rivers. Wonder whatever happened to him? In the most recent appearance two years ago Texas A&M blew out the Wolfpack 52-13. Before last year’s 4-8 campaign NC State had gone to eight straight bowls.
As we mentioned in the beginning this is only the third time in history the Cats and Wolfpack have met on the gridiron. The two schools are tied at one win apiece. In the first game, all the way back in 1909 NC State won at home 15-6. It would be 61 years before Kentucky and North Carolina played again, this time in Lexington. On Halloween, the Cats rolled to a 27-2 victory.
Who Wins On Saturday?
Despite having a losing record in 2020 Kentucky is actually a two-and-a-half point favorite on Saturday. Having gone through the rigors of an All-SEC schedule is probably the reason. Even with Marrow calling the plays for the first time don’t look for a whole lot of changes with the Kentucky offense. In the end, the Wildcats keep the Wolfpack offense off the field with their strong running game. Look for a close contest that goes down to the wire.
Kentucky 24 North Carolina State 20
Thanks for checking out our 2021 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl preview here at Last Word On College Football. Don’t forget we have previews and recaps of every bowl game leading to the National Championship on January 11th.
Photo courtesy of the Gator Bowl.