Previewing Bowl Games For Kentucky Schools — UK, UL, and WKU

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Kentucky teams hit the trifecta this bowl season. Who’ll likely win their games? Read on to see my picks.

For the second straight year, the college football sun is shining brightly on My Old Kentucky Home! Kentucky, Louisville, and Western Kentucky will participate in bowl games over the holiday season.

The teams combined for a total of 21 wins this year, although each storyline is different. Nevertheless, all three teams get to play one more game to close out the 2017 campaign.

Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State

AutoNation Cure Bowl, December 16, 1:30 p.m. 

Without question, Western Kentucky fell short of lofty preseason expectations.

When the season began, the Hilltoppers were thought to be a team that could make a run for a third straight Conference USA championship. But WKU finished fourth in the C-USA East with a 6-6 overall record and 4-4 in conference play.

WKU, which was 5-2 at one point, dropped four of its final five games. The season (and a bowl bid) was salvaged in the home finale, a thrilling 41-38 triple-overtime victory over archrival Middle Tennessee State.

The Hilltoppers are led by senior quarterback Mike White, a highly-touted NFL prospect. White is a big reason why WKU is ranked ninth in the nation with 333.7 passing yards per game. He completed 342-of-521 passes for 3,826 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Unfortunately, though, WKU’s ground game is about as good as a law degree from the University of Phoenix.

The Hilltoppers are ranked dead last in the FBS, generating an average of just 66.1 yards per game.

Difficulty running the football was especially evident in WKU’s 31-17 loss to Vanderbilt. WKU couldn’t rush against a porous defense that yielded 40 points or more against every SEC opponent save Tennessee.

Georgia State, out of the Sun Belt Conference, was 6-3 before finishing 6-5–by dropping back-to-back, season-ending home games to Appalachian State and Idaho. The Panthers are very similar to WKU in that they rely heavily on the passing game. They rank 31st in the nation with approximately 270 yards per game but also rank 116th in rushing yards per game.

WR Penny Hart will be the main player that the Hilltopper secondary will need to control. The sophomore has caught 73 passes for 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season.

Prediction: White will be too much for the Panthers secondary. Expect him to engineer a near-perfect game in his last contest as a Topper.

WKU 35, Georgia State 28

Kentucky vs. Northwestern

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, December 29, 3:30 p.m. 

Coach Mark Stoops and Kentucky got off to one of the best starts in school history, racing out to a 6-2 record following a 29-26 victory over Tennessee on October 28. But then came November….

It was a disastrous month, too. Outside of a 44-21 win at Vanderbilt, the Wildcats fell flat. Georgia dismantled the ‘Cats, 42-13, in Athens. Then, UL’s Lamar Jackson took UK to the woodshed, 44-17, at Kroger Field.

The story of Northwestern’s season is quite different. After a shaky 2-3 start, the Big Ten Wildcats won seven straight conference games and ended up as the runner-up in the Big Ten West.

NU has something that could limit dynamic Kentucky running back Benny Snell, Jr. It’s an overbearing run defense.

The Wildcats are the ninth-best team in the nation at defending the run, yielding just 111.3 yards per outing. That will serve as a formidable challenge for a Kentucky team that relies heavily on Snell. The sophomore has established himself as one of the best running backs in the conference, rushing for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns on 256 carries this season.

If Kentucky is to win, senior quarterback Stephen Johnson needs to play a game like he did in 2016 against Louisville. In that game, he completed 16-of-27 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a team-high 83 yards.

To bolster Johnson, the UK defense must come up with at least two takeaways. But that won’t be easy. NU QB Clayton Thorson throws an average of one interception per game–tossing 12 overall so far on the season.

Prediction: Northwestern will greatly limit Snell and that could spell doom. That’s why I think Kentucky is headed for its fourth consecutive bowl loss.

Northwestern 27, UK 24

Louisville vs. Mississippi State

TaxSlayer Bowl, December 30, 11 a.m.

This year’s Louisville team is a shadow of what it was in 2016 but give UL credit: the Cardinals have won three straight games, including a 44-17 blowout victory over Kentucky in Lexington to close out the regular season.

Louisville is led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, who didn’t experience a drop-off from his 2016 Heisman-winning campaign. He completed 241-of-399 passes for 3,489 yards and 25 touchdowns while rushing for an additional 1,443 yards and 17 scores.

The downside in this game is the loss of Mississippi State’s dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The junior’s season came to an end when he suffered an ankle injury against Ole Miss on Thanksgiving Night.

If Fitzgerald could play against Jackson, it would be like King Kong and Goliath slugging it out.

The Bulldogs’ only hope is to contain Jackson and force him to commit turnovers–just like as Kentucky did to him last year. In that game, the Heisman-winner coughed up the pigskin four times—including a fumble at the UK 8-yard line, which led to the Cats’ game-winning field goal.

But make no mistake about it: Mississippi State’s defense represents the biggest challenge Jackson has faced all year. The Bulldogs give up an average of just 20.4 points per outing.

Prediction: If Fitzgerald were healthy, I’d give the nod to MSU. But he’s not, so I’m going with the Cardinals in what could very well turn into the “The Lamar Jackson Show.”

UL 42, Mississippi State 21


About Cameron Brown

Cameron Brown is sports columnist with The Journal-Enterprise, Providence, Kentucky and winner of the Kentucky Press Association “Best Sports Column of the Year” award. Cameron has a passion for basketball–like so many others in his home state of Kentucky. He played basketball for his high school in rural western Kentucky and enjoys other sports, including college football and Major League Baseball. His dream is to have a job in sports.

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