One of the more intriguing contests of what shapes up to be a stellar New Year’s Day of college football bowl game action features a pair of teams from the SEC and Big Ten. The 9-3 Kentucky Wildcats will be taking on the 9-3 Penn State Nittany Lions in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, a game which kicks of at 1 PM EST from Orlando and will be broadcast to a national audience on ABC.
The Wildcats were one of the feel-good stories of the year in college football. Not much was expected from the traditional SEC also-rans heading into the year, but they wildly exceeded expectations while delivering a number of memorable wins. Among the big highlights of an exciting season of Kentucky football was a 27-16 victory over the Florida Gators, a game which snapped the Wildcats 31-game losing streak to its conference rival.
The Nittany Lions entered 2018 with much bigger expectations in 2018. The team started off the year ranked #10 in the country, but they found themselves tested right out of the gate by a tough Appalachian State Mountaineers team which had designs on a big upset. Penn State pulled out a 45-38 victory, and they would rebound from that scare with three consecutive blowout wins. However, the team had its share of struggles down the stretch run.
This is a pretty fascinating matchup of one of the year’s big surprises facing off with a national powerhouse. Let’s break down this contest in full detail, starting with the view from the oddsmakers.
Kentucky vs. Penn State, 1 PM EST, Tues. January 1, ABC
Kentucky vs. Penn State pick:
Following Kentucky’s storybook win over Florida, the question became exactly how long it would take for the clock to strike 12 on the team. They would go on to start the season on a 5-0 run, suffering their first loss in a close one on the road to the Texas A&M Aggies. The Wildcats dusted themselves off after that setback and finished out the season 4-2 over the final six. For further evidence that this season wasn’t all luck, we need to look no further than Kentucky’s 5-3 record versus the loaded SEC.
After starting off the season 4-0, Penn State hit a rough patch while dropping back-to-back games to a pair of Big Ten heavyweights. They lost a tough 27-26 decision to the Ohio State Buckeyes, and followed that up with a four-point loss to the Michigan State Spartans. The Nittany Lions righted the ship to close out the season strong, winning five of their final six contests.
In the wake of the regular season, Kentucky is pretty battle-tested from a tough schedule. The team suffered only one double-digit loss on the year, a 34-17 defeat at the hands of the powerful Georgia Bulldogs, and notched seven 10-point or more wins of their own. Among the many season highlights were winning over nationally ranked conference foes Florida and the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Penn State had mixed results against Top 25 teams, going 1-2 versus a trio of ranked conference foes. Losses to Ohio State and the Michigan Wolverines were disappointments, but the club was able to eek out a win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team which was ranked #18 at kickoff. The Nittany Lions closed out the season strong by winning three straight, with all victories over that span having a margin of victory of 12 points or greater.
Penn State gets the edge on offense, mainly due to the strength of its passing in relation to Kentucky, which is slightly anemic on that front. Defense is in the same neighborhood, but we have to give Kentucky the nod due to its strength versus the run.
Quarterback pressure goes to Penn State, while there’s no major edge to be found in other miscellaneous stats. In short, we have two squads which match up pretty well, and we should be in for a solid game as a result.
We have to go all the way back to 1999 for the last meeting of these two programs – a 26-14 win for the Nittany Lions – so we can instead focus on the respective teams track record in the postseason. For recent bowl game history, Penn State has a slight edge over their opponent, going 2-3 over their last five versus 1-4 for Kentucky.
The Wildcats have lost four bowl games in a row, including a loss to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the 2016 Gator Bowl, and a loss last year to the Northwestern Wildcats in the Music City Bowl. We have to go all the way back to 2009 to find the school’s last bowl game win, a 25-19 victory over the East Carolina Pirates in the Liberty Bowl.
The Nittany Lions have fared slightly better, including last year’s victory over the Washington Huskies in the Fiesta Bowl. However, they lost their previous two bowl game appearances, coming up short to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl following the 2015 season, and losing to the USC Trojans in the following year’s Rose Bowl.
Favorites are on a 3-2 run in recent Citrus Bowl history. Last year, the two-point underdog Notre Dame Fighting Irish took down the LSU Tigers by a score of 21-17. For this year’s game, Penn State is a 6.5-point favorite.
This is an interesting matchup of a pair of Power Five schools who have brought plenty to the table in 2018. While that was the expectation for Penn State, the same can’t be said for Kentucky. The team had somewhat of a magical season, and we’ll be looking for their strong play to continue. That may not be enough for them to win outright, but it should result in them keeping it close and covering.
We’ll take Kentucky plus the points.