JOE COX: Wildcats Hoping to Unleash Some Cold Fury on Northwestern in Music City Bowl
Editor Jamie Vaught called the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl as soon as the pairing was announced. The Wildcats would win, Vaught guaranteed his readership. Some were shocked, but others quickly realized that in a Kentucky/Northwestern battle, with both teams being the Wildcats, this was a sure thing. Readers will have to forgive Jamie his joke, because there haven’t been all that many sure things in Kentucky football this season.
If you’re the glass-half-full type, you see a second straight bowl game, a second straight season of .500 football in the SEC, another year of Benny Snell running over, around, and sometimes through tacklers and you’re relatively happy with Kentucky’s holiday destination of Nashville.
If you’re the glass-half-empty type, you recognize that Kentucky may never play a schedule again which practically begs for a 9-3 campaign. If the glory days include a 31st consecutive loss to a morbid Florida team and another home loss to a probation-riddled Ole Miss squad, well, maybe they’re not so glorious.
To be candid, there’s plenty of room for being on the fence about this 2017 squad. UK mostly won the games it should have won, and didn’t come close in a game as a decided underdog. Which is where Northwestern enters into things. The 9-3 squad from the Big Ten, ranked 20th in both major polls, finished its season with seven consecutive wins. If Kentucky can knock off Northwestern, it would provide a quality win which 2017 seems to have otherwise lacked (a road win at South Carolina being the biggest highlight otherwise).
It won’t be easy.
Northwestern is a balanced, disciplined team that figures to give Kentucky a tough game. Running back Justin Jackson is second among active FBS players with 5,283 career rushing yards. QB Clayton Thorson passed for over 2,800 yards and 15 touchdowns. Northwestern has the ninth best run defense in FBS football, led by freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher, who had 110 tackles this season.
Kentucky, meanwhile, will be without junior defensive end/linebacker Denzil Ware, who was suspended by head coach Mark Stoops for violation of team rules. At the present time, Kentucky is an underdog in the reckoning of Las Vegas sportsbooks by about eight points.
Again, if you’re from the glass-half-empty crew, you’re probably thinking of the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl, when Kentucky came out flat and erratic against a methodical Georgia Tech team that won easily.
But if you’re from the glass half-full crew, this game may remind you of the 2006 Music City Bowl, when Clemson was a solid touchdown favorite and was an easy choice of most prognosticators. But apparently nobody told Kentucky, and the Wildcats jumped out to a 28-6 lead, holding on to win 28-20.
Which view will ultimately be right? The results of this bowl game will play a large role in defining whether 2017 is ultimately viewed as another step in the building process or as a missed opportunity.
My pick? Every time Stephen Johnson’s back has been against the wall, he has rallied. It is this week. If Kentucky’s going to pull the upset, he’s going to need a big game. Forgive my optimism if I feel like he’s got one left.
UK 28, Northwestern 27
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written six books. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," will be released February 1st and can be pre-ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.