Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr.
Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (24) carries the ball during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Missouri in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

CITRUS BOWL PREVIEW

Mike Shara

Vrbo Citrus Bowl
Saturday, January 2  1 pm  ABC
Camping World Stadium, Orlando FL
(22) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (15) Iowa Hawkeyes

SPREAD : Kentucky -3 (DraftKings)
OVER/UNDER: 44 (FanDuel)
MONEYLINE: Iowa +125 (PointsBet)

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KENTUCKY (9-3, 5-3 in the SEC)
Give UK Head Coach Mark Stoops credit. In 2013 he took over a program whose football legacy generally consisted of getting revenge on all the SEC teams that beat up on them once basketball season arrived. His first season the Wildcats won just 2 of 12 games, none vs. a conference opponent. Fast forward to 2021 and the culture around his team has changed dramatically. This will be their sixth consecutive bowl game appearance, finishing the regular season with a thrashing of their in-state rivals Louisville on the road and seeking just their second 10-win season in over 40 years. They also just completed a 2022 signing period that was ranked among the 10 best in the U.S. This year’s offense, led by running back Chris Rodriguez (second in SEC rushing yards) and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson (1275 receiving yards, 14 total TDs this season), has flirted with top 25 status in the country this season, averaging over 33 points per game despite playing in the nation’s toughest conference. This game’s x-factor will be the play of junior quarterback Will Levis. He did throw 23 TDs and for over 2500 yards this season but also turned the ball over at inopportune times, finishing the regular season with 12 interceptions. After exploring entering this year’s NFL Draft, he recently announced that he will return to UK in 2022 where protecting the ball will have to be a focus for him if he wants to play on Sundays in the future. The defense is sturdy if unspectacular – they don’t create turnovers at a rate that elite defensive squads do, but they tackle well and have shown they can get to the quarterback and create disruption, with fifth-year senior lineman Josh Paschal leading the team with 15 tackles for a loss.

IOWA (10-3, 7-3 in the BIG TEN)
In Kirk Ferentz’s 23rd season at Iowa (his only Head Coaching job), the Hawkeyes have won at least 10 games for the seventh time. Despite managing 10 wins already, it has been an up-and-down season for his team. Mid-October saw them defeat Penn State at home, moving them into a #3 overall ranking and priming them for a strong run at a Big Ten title and a spot in the CFB Championship discussion. Alas the next two weeks shot those dreams down quickly as they dropped consecutive games to unranked Purdue and Wisconsin teams. They recovered to win their next four conference games before being absolutely obliterated by Michigan in the Big Ten title game. Fittingly for Iowa, the heart and strength of this team is defense. They finished near the top ten in the country, allowing less than 20 points per game despite a very difficult regular season schedule and led the country with 24 interceptions on the season, including 5 from Dane Belton. The best thing to say about their offense (ranked 96th overall in points-per-game) is that they are careful with the ball. Iowa finished third in the NCAA in turnover margin partly due to the fact that quarterback Spencer Petras only threw 6 interceptions all season long. The bad news about the whole ‘careful with the ball’ thing is that he also only threw 9 touchdown passes this year. Running back Tyler Goodson had a nice season with nearly 1400 yards from scrimmage, but he’s really their only big threat and still only reached the end zone 7 times in 2021. They will need their opportunistic defense to continue creating turnovers, shortening the field for them to make for some easier scoring. If the game devolves into an offensive shootout (admittedly unlikely), Iowa will have trouble.

MATCHUP
Though neither team has played a game in a month, the momentum here clearly feels like it is on the side of Kentucky. Their offense played very well in their final three games, scoring 142 points. Whichever team wins the turnover battle here would seem to be the logical winner. Iowa will rely heavily on their defense in this game, but even if they manage to pick off a pass or two their offensive sets just aren’t diverse enough to compete with Kentucky for 60 minutes. I don’t think either team sets any kind of offensive record in this game and that over/under number looks high to me, even at just 44.

PREDICTION: Kentucky 22 Iowa 13

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