The final Big Ten versus SEC clash during college football bowl season pits a program that failed to reach its high expectations against a team that has far exceeded its potential in the Citrus Bowl.
Although they won five of their last six games to reach 9-3, the Penn State Nittany Lions disappointed in their most important contests of the year, as they fell to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Unlike James Franklin’s team, Mark Stoops’ Kentucky Wildcats had New Year’s Six aspirations entering November, but defeats to Georgia and Tennessee dropped them to 9-3.
At stake in the Citrus Bowl for the Nittany Lions is a third straight double-digit win season under Franklin, while the Wildcats are hoping to hit the 10-win mark for the first time since 1977.
Citrus Bowl 2019
Date: Tuesday, January 1
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Watch ESPN or ESPN app
Odds (via OddsShark): Penn State -6.5; Over/Under: 47
In the last three years of Stoops’ tenure, Kentucky ignited football excitement at a school that will always care more about basketball.
The Wildcats made the jump from average to upper-tier SEC team by recording nine wins, but they shouldn’t be content with that mark with a historic season looking them in the face.
Running back Benny Snell is the engine of the Kentucky offense, as he racked up 1,305 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Snell closed the regular season off on a strong note with a pair of 100-yard performances against Middle Tennessee and Louisville.
The junior should achieve a good amount of success against Penn State’s 67th-ranked rushing defense.
In their three losses, Penn State failed to control the line of scrimmage, as it conceded an average of 167 yards, which is close to the 168.4 yards per game it gave up on the ground.
The most embarrassing performance from the Penn State defense came in the 42-7 defeat at the hands of Michigan in which the Wolverines torched the Nittany Lions for 259 rushing yards.
Although Snell is the focal point of the Kentucky offense, he isn’t the only threat the Penn State defense has to contain.
However, the Nittany Lions are better equipped to stop any threat the Wildcats pose through the air, as four members of their secondary have two or more interceptions.
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson needs to be careful where he throws the ball in order to prevent Penn State from creating a large advantage through turnovers.
Wilson improved in the second half of the regular season, and he is coming off a 261-yard, three-touchdown performance against Louisville.
Wide receiver Lynn Bowden, who caught two of those touchdown throws versus Louisville, is Wilson’s top target, but he may have a tough time getting free against Penn State corners John Reid and Amani Oruwariye.
Penn State is much more effective through the air than Kentucky, and with Trace McSorley playing in his final game, the Nittany Lions would be smart to let their signal-caller touch the ball as many times as possible.
The quarterback arrives in Orlando, Florida, with 27 total touchdowns, 16 of which came through the air and 11 more that were on the ground.
Between McSorley and 1,000-yard running back Miles Sanders, the Nittany Lions are more than capable of matching Kentucky’s production on the ground and bettering it over four quarters.
Kentucky sits in the middle of the pack when it comes to rushing defense, but the difference between it and Penn State’s ground protection is that it has only conceded 11 rushing scores, which is an accomplishment in a conference with so much talent within the SEC.
Where Penn State may find more difficulties is in its passing game, as Kentucky boasts a 14th-best passing defense that led up 181.3 yards per contest.
McSorley is going to test the resolve of the Kentucky secondary, as he tries to connect with wide receivers KJ Hamler and Juwan Johnson to balance out the offense and keep all the pressure off Sanders’ shoulders.
In order to reach his receivers, though, McSorley needs to elude the pass rush of linebacker Josh Allen, who is considered one of the top defensive prospects in the 2019 draft class.
Kentucky 27, Penn State 23
Penn State appears to be the rational pick given the spread and their experience, but Kentucky is ready to send one more surprise through the college football ranks.
Driven by Snell, the Wildcats bolt out to an early lead and weather the storm created by McSorley in the passing game.
Although the Wildcats will do their best to open up a double-digit advantage on Penn State, they’ll use a fourth-quarter stop of the Penn State offense to reach the 10-win mark.