By LARRY VAUGHT
For several weeks various sources had told me that Tennessee’s strong finish made the Volunteers the team the Taxslayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville wanted the most unless the Vols got invited to the Outback Bowl.
However, the Music City Bowl in Nashville also wanted the Vols and to match Tennessee against Louisville in a game both fan bases obviously would have liked.
However, the Gator Bowl had Kentucky No. 2 on its list for weeks even when others may have doubted it. At the same time, the Belk Bowl in Charlotte made it clear from the start it would like to have Kentucky in its bowl game according to various sources I talked with the last few weeks.
I actually got up Sunday morning thinking UK would go to the Gator Bowl. However, about 9:30 a.m. two sources not connected with UK told me Tennessee would be in the Gator Bowl and UK in the Belk Bowl.
Much has been made of Tennessee having it choice of games and how athletics director Philip Fulmer lobbied to get his team into the Gator Bowl. But don’t doubt for a minute that UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart lobbies every year for the best bowl possible for his team. It’s what athletics directors do — and should do.
However, remember bowl pairings involve a sometimes complex set of factors involving the SEC, ESPN, the bowl committee and in the case of the Gator Bowl, the Big Ten.
It seemed certain Indiana would represent the Big Ten in the Gator Bowl. Kentucky-Indiana certainly would have been a matchup both fan bases would have liked because of the natural rivalry but also because of the hard feelings that still exist between the schools and fans over Indiana’s court-storming after beating then No. 1 UK in December of 2011. Coach John Calipari ended the series with Indiana over that scene and the two schools have not been able to agree on playing basketball again since then.
From what I was told, both Indiana and Kentucky representatives reached out to Gator Bowl officials saying if the schools were paired together they would not appear at any pre-bowl functions together. Neither school wanted to be at the same place with the other school.
Of course, the bowl could have survived that — and maybe even promoted it. But remember the Gator Bowl always had Tennessee at the top of its list and in the end the Vols opted for a bowl in Florida over one in Tennessee, a choice UK obviously also would have made if given the same chance.
Kentucky fans were giddy when several media outlets reported UK and Indiana in the Gator Bowl was a done deal, something that is never true until the official announcement and that left UK fans confused and upset, especially those who immediately made travel plans or bought Gator Bowl tickets.
Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart understands the bowl process says the only way to “own the day” is go undefeated and that doesn’t always work.
“So at the end of the day we’ll always be appreciative of where we go. We knew that there was two or three options available. And, basically, two options available to us depending on how many teams got up in the bowl situation. And we knew that in terms of order of choices and how people pick bowls that there was two, about two places that we were going to get to go,” Barnhart said.
Obviously that was Jacksonville and Charlotte because of Louisville going to Nashville after playing UK in its final regular season game, a blowout win for the Cats, and the Cats had played there two years ago.
“I knew that we would get a phone call mid-afternoon after the rankings came out and they would say that ‘Hey, this is where it’s sort of landed,’ and there would probably be not a lot of room in that and that’s okay. We haven’t been to Charlotte before. We’re excited about it. We have been to the Music City Bowl several times and that’s a good thing. We, obviously, couldn’t go back there because of the two-year window, and that’s okay.”
Now pay attention to what Barnhart said next.
“The Gator Bowl was much talked about and there was that conversation. Then you get into opponents and things like that that happen, and then you talk about the Belk Bowl,” Barnhart said.
Get into opponents and things like that that happen. Can I say Indiana?
However, no pouting from Barnhart about UK getting to go to the Belk Bowl for the first time.
“It’s a really good matchup for us against a really good opponent. So I’m excited for our players to get to experience something new. I’m excited that our fans can get there fairly easily. It’s a six-hour trip from Lexington,” Barnhart said.
“And so I think there’s a lot of moving pieces to these things and they’re really hard. The SEC staff has a really difficult job of trying to match all this stuff up and make it work together. And I think they do a remarkable job year-in and year-out. At the end of the day, we’re ready to play and ready to go to Charlotte.”
Bottom line, that’s where UK plays so best thing to do is embrace it the way senior offensive guard Logan Stenberg was doing Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter to me. Honestly, Florida would be cool just because its warmer, but other than that, it doesn’t make a difference to me personally,” Stenberg said.