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Kentucky football headed to the Music City Bowl in Nashville to face Iowa

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 12/4/2022 Jon Hale, Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky football is returning to its most familiar bowl game this December.

The Wildcats will face Iowa in the Music City Bowl on New Year’s Eve. The game will represent a rematch of last season’s Citrus Bowl, which Kentucky won 20-17 on Jan. 1, 2022.

Kentucky has played in the Music City Bowl five times before but not since 2017. That game against Northwestern was Kentucky’s last bowl loss. Star running back Benny Snell was ejected in the second quarter of the 2017 Music City Bowl for making contact with an official.

Kentucky is 12-9 all time in bowl games and 2-3 in the Music City Bowl.

Fans will have to choose between football and basketball

The SEC’s decision to send Kentucky to the Nashville, Tennessee, game places UK fans in an awkward position.

The Music City Bowl kicks off at noon, the same time that the annual Kentucky-Louisville men’s basketball rivalry game tips off in Lexington. Fans who might have attended both games will now have to choose which to watch in person. Others will have to pick which to watch live on television. The Music City Bowl will air on ABC. The basketball game will air on CBS.

The football-basketball conflict represents a fitting bookend to a season that began with a public feud between football coach Mark Stoops and basketball coach John Calipari in August after Calipari called Kentucky a “basketball school” in an interview with reporters during his team’s preseason exhibition series in the Bahamas.

“I’d like to say every year in our 25-year history here has been a perfect scenario, and that’s not the case,” Music City Bowl president and CEO Scott Ramsey told the Herald-Leader Sunday. “I think every year you try to look at the teams that kind of are in the available opportunities for you. (UK athletic director) Mitch (Barnhart) and I talked quite a bit about that the last couple weeks as things were starting to come in at least some bigger picture opportunities. We just felt like this year it just felt like the right fit. Didn’t want that to derail what we felt like was the right team in the right year for us, which was Kentucky.

“So, not ideal. I think we would both say that, but we didn’t feel like it was anything to go in a different direction.”

For Kentucky fans who do choose to make the trip to Nashville, there are other attractions during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

The NHL’s Nashville Predators hos the Dallas Stars on Dec. 27. The NFL’s Tennessee Titans host the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 29. After the Music City Bowl, Nashville’s New Year’s Eve celebration will include a downtown concert featuring the Zac Brown Band, Brooks & Dunn and Kelsea Ballerini.

Why are Iowa and Kentucky playing again?

Nine years ago, the SEC adopted a new bowl selection process that saw the league office assign teams to it’s mid-tier bowl partners, known as the “Pool of Six.” That group includes the Music City, ReliaQuest, Gator, Texas, Liberty and Las Vegas bowls this year. The process was designed to avoid a scenario like that one that saw Kentucky play in the Music City bowl three times in four years from 2006 to 2009.

Along with avoiding repeat bowl trips for teams, avoiding rematches from recent bowl games is another guideline the league office uses.

So how did Kentucky and Iowa end up bookending 2022 with a Citrus Bowl matchup on New Year’s Day and a Music City Bowl matchup on New Year’s Eve?

“Avoiding rematches is a guideline in our bowl selection process, but not a requirement,” an SEC spokesman told the Herald-Leader in an email asking for clarification on the process. “Also, in this instance, there was agreement among the participating schools and the bowl prior to the matchup being confirmed.”

While the SEC has final decision on where its teams play in the group of bowls known as the “Pool of Six,” which includes the Music City Bowl, the league office takes into account the preference of schools and bowls. With a better record than multiple SEC teams in the pool, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart should have had veto power over the Music City Bowl if Kentucky wanted to avoid the football-basketball conflict. Doing so might have sent Kentucky to a less-prestigious bowl though, or a cross-country trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, which presented a scheduling nightmare for the football staff since it will be played the weekend before signing day.

In a November interview with the Herald-Leader about possible bowl scenarios, Ramsey mentioned a Kentucky-Iowa rematch as one variable the bowl was trying to avoid.

However, as the options for the bowl clarified based on the results of the final two weeks of the regular season, both programs became more appealing to the game. Kentucky fans have traditionally flocked to Nashville for bowl games or the SEC basketball tournament. Iowa has never played in the game (the Hawkeyes were supposed to play in the Music City Bowl in 2020 before the game was canceled due to a COVID-19 breakout), but Nashville also represents a driveable trip from Iowa City.

“Neither school, coach, AD, anybody, either conference had any concerns about it,” Ramsey said Sunday after the bowl matchup was announced. “It’s unusual, no doubt about it, but we talked through with both schools. We just felt like each school was kind of the right pick in the right year if they presented itself. If either school had some issues with it, certainly we could go another direction, but neither had any issues whatsoever so we moved forward.”

Kentucky could be short-handed in the Music City Bowl

At stake in the bowl for Kentucky is a 20-game non-conference winning streak, the longest active winning streak in the country. Included in that streak is four consecutive bowl wins and eight wins over Power Five conference foes.

Last season’s Citrus Bowl is the only previous meeting between the Wildcats and Iowa, head coach Mark Stoops’ alma mater. The SEC usually tries to avoid repeat bowl matchups in its selection process, but Kentucky lost much of its leverage with a November loss to Vanderbilt.

Kentucky is unlikely to be at full strength in the bowl game.

Already, several Wildcats have announced their intention to enter the transfer portal. While none of that group served as starters late in the season, some did see regular snaps off the bench.

Star quarterback Will Levis also has not announced his plans for the bowl game. Levis and Stoops have acknowledged there is a chance Levis opts out of playing in the game in order to gain some much-needed rest after an injury-plagued season in advance of starting his pre-NFL Draft workouts. Levis is widely projected as a first-round pick and one of the top three quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft class.

Kentucky will also feature a new offensive play-caller in the game after offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello was fired last week. Running backs coach John Settle was also fired after the regular season finale.

The Music City Bowl does offer the chance for Kentucky to showcase its program in a city that has become increasingly important to the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts in recent years.

Star freshman wide receiver Barion Brown leads a group of promising young Wildcats from Nashville. Twin brothers and Nashville-area natives Keaten and Destin Wade could also feature in the game. Keaten has played as a reserve outside linebacker as a freshman this season. Destin could make his UK debut at quarterback if Levis opts not to play in the game.

Music City Bowl

Kentucky vs. Iowa

When:Noon Saturday, Dec. 31

Where:Nissan Stadium in Nashville

Records:Kentucky (7-5, 3-5 SEC), Iowa (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten)


Series:Kentucky leads 1-0

Last meeting:Kentucky won 20-17 on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

Kentucky football’s 2023 roster could use transfer portal help at these positions

Why we will look back at 2022 as the year Kentucky actually ‘joined’ the SEC

Could Liam Coen return to UK? A look at possible candidates to replace Rich Scangarello.

Regardless of bowl opt-out decision, Will Levis’ Kentucky football legacy looks safe

UK freshmen dominated U of L. In NIL era, can the Cats keep their young nucleus intact?

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