‘Phenomenal’ Week in Orlando Set to Culminate with Penn State Matchup
The New Year’s Day forecast for Lexington: a high of 45 degrees with cloudy skies.
In Orlando, meanwhile, temperatures will top out in the low 80s beneath the warm Florida sun, which is about what the weather has been since the Kentucky Wildcats arrived in town for the VRBO Citrus Bowl the day after Christmas.
Add in the fact that family is along for the trip and Disney World is nearby and you have a recipe for a nice winter getaway.
“This has been an incredible bowl,” Mark Stoops said. “The people, the hospitality and the hosts, everybody’s just been phenomenal. Our players have thoroughly enjoyed themselves.”
For good reason.
Over the last week in Orlando, the Cats have taken a trip to Universal Studios and spent a day with local children at Fun Spot America. Kash Daniel and Landon Young even got away Sunday to do some fishing, while All-American Josh Allen had another favorite activity in mind.
“I just like all the activities the bowl sets up for us. The Best Buy trip was a pretty good experience,” said Allen, referencing the $400 gift card each player received. “Got to get whatever we want. So that was affordable. But everything — everything every day, you know, we’re having fun. We’re enjoying ourselves and, you know, it’s going to set us up for a great game this week.”
Oh yeah, that football game. The real priority.
“We talked about it yesterday: flipping that switch and getting locked in and getting ready to go,” Stoops said. “It’s still a challenge. Guys have quite a few people rolling into town and family and friends for them start coming around. That’s good and we want to spend time with their families, but we get two, three days out from the game it’s time to start honing in and getting ready to go.”
The week in Florida will culminate when the Citrus Bowl kicks off Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Camping World Stadium. The No. 14 Wildcats (9-3) will take on No. 12 Penn State (9-3) in their first New Year’s Day bowl in two decades and Stoops anticipates no issues with focus.
“The nice thing about our team, again, is we have a lot of seniors,” Stoops said. “We have very good leadership, so I’ve felt good. I’ve felt comfortable with the balance all week. I feel like the guys when it’s time to come in and lock in at meetings and go to practice, they’ve done a really good job. We’ve been very energized at practice and, again, it shouldn’t be hard to motivate our team at this point.”
With stakes so high, it’s easy to see why that is.
“It’s extremely important to us,” Stoops said. “Obviously, competing against Penn State, the history that they have, the storied program, that’s very important to us and motivating for us. Playing Penn State, competing against Penn State, playing on New Year’s Day, getting a 10th victory, it’s very important. It hasn’t happened very many times in the history of our program.”
Stoops, Kentucky have Franklin’s respect
As a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, James Franklin only caught the first year of the Stoops era at Kentucky.
Then head coach at Vanderbilt, Franklin faced off against the Stoops-led Wildcats in 2013, notching a 22-6 victory.
Five years later, times have changed. Franklin is in his fifth season at Penn State, while Stoops has guided a resurgence at UK. All that’s led to Stoops and Franklin meeting again in the Citrus Bowl.
“I’m a huge Coach Stoops fan,” Franklin said. “When you get to be around other coaches that are in it for the right reasons and are doing it in a first-class manner. When it’s time to compete, obviously we’re going to be going as hard as we possibly can for our organizations and our programs, but when it’s time to be able to talk ball and organizational structure it’s been great.”
When it comes to organizational structure, Franklin appreciates the work Stoops has done to build Kentucky’s since the two last met on the field.
“I think the biggest thing is although we kind of live in a society, specifically when it comes to college football, that everybody wants a quick fix, it doesn’t work like that,” Franklin said. “Coach needed time to come in and get his philosophy in place and his program in place. For all of us, that takes time. That takes a number of years, and that’s what you see right now.”
Kentucky was on the way to a two-win season back in 2013. Now the Cats are about to play in their third straight bowl after the most successful regular season at UK in four decades.
“You see a football program that has taken on his identity,” Franklin said. “They’re tough, they’re hard-nosed, they play really hard, they play together, they got really good schemes on offense, defense and special teams, and then they’ve done a good job of going out and finding talent.”
Franklin is clearly thinking about players like Allen and Benny Snell Jr. when he talks about talent. He has joked about trying to convince both to skip the bowl to prepare for their professional futures, to no avail.
“I was following your running back and your outside linebacker on Twitter,” Franklin said. “I was sending them direct messages about maybe — yeah. But that didn’t work. Yeah. They’re playing.”
Jokes aside, Franklin appreciates what Stoops has going in Lexington.
“I see a guy that has a very clear vision of how he wants to do things at the University of Kentucky and now he’s been there long enough that that’s in place,” Franklin said. “That’s why you see the success that they’re having.”