Lost in the coaching turnover this winter is that Virginia Tech still has a game on the schedule. The Hokies are slated to take on Kentucky on New Year’s Eve at 12 p.m. in Charlotte, a game that will mean more than most bowl games.
Kentucky is an intriguing opponent. The Wildcats’ football team is often an afterthought, but Mark Stoops’ bunch has been on the up and up in recent years. The program got off to a rocky start under Stoops’ leadership but has since finished with a winning record in each of the last three seasons. In 2018, Kentucky hit the 10-win mark and knocked off Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
This season played out differently. Kentucky had a mid-season stretch of four losses in five games that eliminated any hopes of a 10-win season. However, Kentucky rebounded and won four of their last five games to reach seven wins, including a rivalry blowout of Louisville.
A one-man band
Kentucky’s offense didn’t help matters with their inconsistency. The unit sits outside the top-75 in both yardage and points scored and during the mid-season skid, Kentucky averaged just 13 points per game. The Wildcats perked up in their final three games, scoring 38, 50 and 45 points to finish the regular season.
Lynn Bowden is the reason Kentucky’s offense hit their stride. He’s an actual do-it-all player. Bowden started the season at wide receiver but thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness at quarterback, Kentucky turned to the electrifying Bowden to get things going and it sure seems to have worked.
Let’s be clear, Bowden is not a good passer. He’s completing less than 47 percent of his throws and has two touchdowns with two interceptions. But his legs are doing the damage, thanks to an option-heavy offense that Kentucky has since employed. He’s rushed for over 100 yards six different times since moving to quarterback, with the lone exception being a 99-yard performance against Georgia. Bowden has rushed for 11 touchdowns and is averaging over eight yards per rush.
Running back Asim Rose is Kentucky’s next option. Rose has hit paydirt seven times this season and is averaging 5.4 yards per rush. Still, Rose isn’t nearly as effective as Bowden. Neither is sophomore running back Kavosiey Smoke, but at least he’s been a bit more of a big-play threat. Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency rating, OFEI, gives Kentucky the 68th-best offense in the country.
Typical SEC defense
Kentucky’s defense has easily been the team’s backbone. Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rating, DFEI, rates the Wildcats 35th in the country.
Traditional statistics back that up. Kentucky ranks 19th in yardage allowed and 12th in scoring defense, in large part thanks to one of the best pass defenses in the nation. Even though the Wildcats intercepted just eight passes this season, Kentucky’s pass defense was No. 4 in FBS. They allowed less than 173 pass yards per game and just seven passing touchdowns all season.
Junior defensive back Brandin Echols may not have intercepted a pass, but he did defend a team-high nine passes. Pro Football Focus credited Echols with 11 pass breakups, giving him a coverage grade of 85.3. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 64 when targeting Echols.
While the Wildcats’ defensive line struggled against the run, the unit racked up 32 sacks this season. It was a team effort, as 6-foot-9 and 310-pound Calvin Taylor led the team with 7.5 sacks. Kentucky’s combination of balanced pass rush and talented secondary makes it hard for opposing teams to move the ball through the air.
Kentucky’s special teams units are good, too. The Wildcats rank 25th in special teams efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
Before becoming Kentucky’s do-it-all superstar, Bowden averaged 13.3 yards per return on four returns. Since he’s been moved to quarterback, Kentucky has had little to zero production there. On the other end, Max Duffy ranks first in yards per punt among qualified punters.
The Kentucky kicking game has been all over the place. Both Chance Poore and Matt Ruffolo have seen the field extensively, although neither has been exceptional. The two have combined to make 8-of-12 field goal attempts have they’ve missed two extra point attempts each.
A critical bowl game
Bowl games are generally important for one reason — preseason rankings. Teams with players coming back who win their bowl games are usually favored come July and August, but these games don’t mean all that much in terms of a program’s development.
However, that doesn’t hold true when a program is in the kind of position that Virginia Tech is. The Hokies are on the verge of a critical offseason that precludes one of the most important seasons in recent memory.
We are witnessing the end of Justin Fuente’s fourth season and while the program is improving in some ways, there are questions abound. Fuente’s 2020 recruiting class is easily the lowest-rated of his tenure, Tech’s winning streak against Virginia has come to an end and the Hokies seemingly aren’t making the necessary strides to become a serious ACC contender.
Virginia Tech is set up for success next season, but that success is banking on a productive offseason. Winning against an SEC team in your backyard can go a long way towards building momentum for 2020. A loss doesn’t doom the future, but it will only create more doubt about the Hokies’ progress.
This year’s Belk Bowl presents Virginia Tech with a prime opportunity to show the national audience that things are improving and that Tech can beat a talented SEC team on a neutral field. A good showing gives the Hokies a massive building block heading into this offseason, when Tech players and coaches across the board need to develop, grow and get better.
Kentucky is a different team with Bowden playing quarterback. The offense is one-dimensional, but it’s better than the anemic unit that lost four of five games in the middle of the season. Still, Kentucky relies on a stingy defense to keep them in ball games and after looking at Kentucky’s schedule, one sees few teams with potent offenses.
Virginia Tech will have their hands full with Bowden. He isn’t quite Bryce Perkins, but he’s a multidimensional threat that can take over a game. If the Hokies can contain Bowden and force him to throw the football, Tech should have no issues holding Kentucky to 20-24 points. That’s how important Bowden is to the offense.
Defensively, Kentucky’s pass rush will be a legitimate test for Virginia Tech’s young offensive line. The unit played pretty well for most of the season, but we saw them struggle mightily in the fourth quarter of their loss to Virginia. Kentucky’s defense should be one of the better units that Virginia Tech has seen all season.
The keys to a Virginia Tech win are eerily similar to the keys to victory over Virginia — contain the catalyst at quarterback and avoid turnovers on offense. The Hokies failed to do either of those things against the Cavs. Can they turn it around vs. Kentucky?