The Kentucky football team is going back, back, back this bowl season.
Mark Stoops’ Wildcats are going back to the VRBO Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, the bowl and site where the Cats defeated Penn State 27-24 on Jan. 1, 2019, to cap the program’s first 10-win season since 1977.
In sunny Florida, the Cats will be back playing another Big Ten team when Kentucky faces that conference’s West Division champions, the Iowa Hawkeyes, on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Camping World Stadium.
And Stoops will be going back in time to his college days, facing his alma mater in Iowa where Stoops played defensive back from 1986-88 under the late grate Hayden Fry before launching a successful coaching career of his own.
As well, Kentucky is headed back to a bowl game for the sixth consecutive season after going 9-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC. The Wildcats were No. 22 in the College Football Playoff rankings released Sunday. UK was 20th in the AFCA Coaches Poll and 25th in the Associated Press media poll, also released Sunday.
As for Iowa, the Hawkeyes took a 42-3 thumping from East Division champ Michigan in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday night in Indianapolis. A 12-1 Michigan was ranked second by the College Football Playoff Committee and will play third-ranked Georgia in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. No. 1 ranked Alabama will play No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl.
After climbing to as high as No. 2 in the polls early in the season, Iowa was No. 15 in Sunday’s CFP rankings, 16th in the coaches’ poll and 17th in the AP Top 25. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s team is 10-3 with losses to Purdue (24-7) at home, Wisconsin (27-7) on the road and Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy. Iowa did beat then ninth-ranked Iowa State (27-17) in Ames and then fourth-ranked Penn State (23-20) in Iowa City.
The 66-year-old Ferentz has been a staple at the school, posting a 178-109 record over 23 seasons. This will be Iowa’s ninth consecutive bowl trip, though its 2020 Music City Bowl appearance was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. Iowa has won three straight bowl games. It beat Boston College 27-20 in the Pinstripe Bowl after the 2017 season; Mississippi State 27-22 in the Outback Bowl after 2018 and USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl after 2019.
This is a typical Ferentz team, boasting a strong running game and an opportunistic defense. Iowa running back Tyler Goodson rushed 256 times for 1,151 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. A 5-foot-10, 199-pound junior from Suwanee, Ga., Goodson produced four 100-yard rushing games on the season, including 156 yards against Nebraska and 153 versus Kent State. He ran behind Tyler Linderbaum, considered one of the best centers in the nation.
Still, Iowa’s offense struggled over the second half of the season and wound up 123rd nationally in total yards. Meanwhile, Iowa ranked 19th nationally in total defense. And, in an interesting twist to the matchup, tied for second nationally in turnover margin with 30 takeaways compared to 14 giveaways. Kentucky is tied for 127th in the same category, having committed 23 turnovers while forcing just six.
That particular weakness didn’t stop the Cats from beating Florida in Lexington for the first time since 1986, or LSU by two touchdowns for the first time since 1999, however. UK’s 5-3 SEC mark is only its second winning league record since 1977.
And, like Iowa, Kentucky is looking for its fourth consecutive bowl win. After beating Penn State in the Citrus, UK defeated Virginia Tech 37-30 in the Belk Bowl after the 2019 season and knocked off North Carolina State 23-21 in the Gator Bowl after last season.
More importantly, Stoops’ club will be trying to replicate that 2019 Citrus Bowl in more ways than one. Achieving a victory would give the program two 10-win seasons in a span of four years.
Now Kentucky hopes to go back to Orlando and do it all over again.
No. 22 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Iowa
When: Jan. 1, 1 p.m.
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 9-3, Iowa 10-3
Series: First meeting