2019 Belk Bowl Preview
- Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky, 2019 Belk Bowl: Noon, ESPN
- Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky Betting Line: VT -2.5 (VegasInsider.com)
- Virginia Tech-Kentucky roster cards: Click here
- Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
- Charlotte weather: Click here
- Gameday information: Click Here
- Tickets from StubHub:
Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3) will face the Kentucky Wildcats (7-5, 3-5) in the Belk Bowl on December 31 in Charlotte, with both teams looking to create some positive momentum heading into 2020.
Mark Stoops has done a great job with the Kentucky program. After going 2-10 in his first season in 2013 and 5-7 in 2014 and 2015, he took the Wildcats to a bowl game in each of the next three seasons, culminating in a 10-3 season and a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl last year. Kentucky finished the 2018 season ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP Poll.
Stoops has his team in a bowl for the fourth straight year, and because of a massive shift in strategy in the middle of the season, they are a tough team to evaluate offensively from a statistical standpoint. Let’s get this preview started with a look at the guy who makes the Wildcats go.
Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden, Jr.
Lynn Bowden, Jr. (6-1, 199, Jr.) took over the starting quarterback position in the sixth game of the season after being a staring wide receiver for first five games. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and though Bowden was a good wide receiver, the coaching staff determined that he was needed at quarterback.
You can’t argue with the results. Here are Kentucky’s numbers before and after Bowden became the starter. (FCS opponents not included)
Pre-Bowden: 164.8 rushing ypg, 377.6 total ypg, 23.4 ppg, 2-3 record
Post-Bowden: 334.5 rushing ypg, 388.5 total ypg, 24.8 ppg, 4-2 record*
*Kentucky also holds a win over UT-Martin during Bowden’s time as starting quarterback
The total yards per game isn’t much different, and the Wildcats aren’t scoring a lot more points. However, their rushing totals have more than doubled, which has of course been a boost to an already very good Kentucky defense.
Bowden has been a dominant runner for the Wildcats. Here are his game-by-game numbers since he took the reins, again not including FCS competition.
Arkansas: 24 carries, 199 yards
Georgia: 17 carries, 99 yards
Missouri: 21 carries, 204 yards
Tennessee: 26 carries, 114 yards
Vanderbilt: 17 carries, 110 yards
Louisville: 22 carries, 284 yards
Georgia was the only defense that managed to keep him under 100 yards, and they just barely did it. He rushed for over 200 yards against Missouri and Louisville, and nearly did it against Arkansas as well. He’s a big time runner, and though he’s already declared for the NFL Draft (as a receiver), he’s still going to play in the bowl game. His running ability is sure to cause plenty of issues.
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But Kentucky’s overall offense is one-dimensional with Bowden at quarterback. Of course, it was zero-dimensional before he took over, so that’s an improvement. Here are his game-by-game passing numbers as the starter…
Arkansas: 7 of 11, 89 yards
Georgia: 2 of 15, 17 yards
Missouri: 3 of 7, 54 yards
Tennessee: 4 of 7, 25 yards
Vanderbilt: 8 of 10, 104 yards
Louisville: 1 of 2, 4 yards
That’s not particularly impressive. He even had a bad passing game against FCS opponent UT-Martin, going 1 of 6 for 9 yards.
It’s also fair to point out that Kentucky didn’t exactly beat top competition with Bowden at quarterback. Their SEC wins came against Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, who combined to go 4-20 in the SEC, with Missouri picking up three of those four wins.
It’s very probable that Bowden will rush for over 100 yards against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, and it’s also possible that he tops the 200-yard mark. However, that doesn’t mean that the Kentucky offense as a whole will have a productive game. This game is more likely to be decided by what the Virginia Tech offense does against the Kentucky defense than by Bowden’s performance.
The Kentucky Defense: Massive Up Front
Kentucky’s defense has been downright dominant at times, both in the traditional statistics as well as the more analytical Pro Football Focus metrics. According to PFF, the Kentucky defense is tied with Missouri as the No. 4 stop unit in the SEC, which ranks them slightly above defenses such as LSU and Florida, and slightly behind Auburn, Georgia and Alabama. Their pass rush ranks No. 2 in the SEC, barely behind Alabama and well ahead of third-place Florida.
Here’s how the Wildcats rank in the more traditional metrics…
Rushing Defense: No. 57
Passing Defense: No. 4
Pass Efficiency Defense: No. 10
Scoring Defense: No. 12
Total Defense: No. 19
Kentucky has been slightly above average at stopping the run, but they’ve been dominant against the pass, and they are allowing just 18.4 points per game. Suffice to say that this will be one of Virginia Tech’s most significant challenges of the season.
The Wildcats run a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense, and it can morph into either alignment at any time. One spot on their depth chart is called “defensive end/outside linebacker” which is a clear indicator that they can run multiple fronts, and they can’t be pegged as either a traditional 4-3 or a 3-4. However, they have tremendous size up front, which is more indicative of a traditional 3-4 scheme.
DT Calvin Taylor, Jr. (6-9, 300, Sr.), backed up by Abdule Abadi-Fitzgerald (6-6, 290, So.)
NG Quinton Bohanna (6-4, 364, Jr.), backed up by Marquan McCall (6-3, 371, So.). No, those aren’t typos.
DE TJ Carter (6-4, 287, Sr.), backed up by Kordell Looney (6-3, 292, Jr.)
Even defensive end/outside linebacker Josh Paschal (6-3, 284, So.) is huge. Taking into account the entire two-deep, this is the biggest defensive line that I can ever remember the Hokies facing, and I’ve written a game preview for every Virginia Tech game since the start of the 2005 season. That’s a whole lot of football games, and yet this is the biggest front that I can remember.
Taylor is probably Kentucky’s best player up front. He and Bohanna, and to a lesser extent TJ Carter, represent the biggest physical challenge that Virginia Tech’s interior offensive line has faced all season. True freshman Bryan Hudson has had a solid season for a guy his age with no experience at center, but moving 364- and 371-pound nose guards is a tough thing to ask of a true freshman who hasn’t gone through an offseason in a college strength and conditioning program. We’ll likely see lots of misdirection in the Virginia Tech rushing attack in this game.
Going by PFF grades, Kentucky’s weak spots on defense are at linebacker. Middle linebacker Kash Daniel (6-1, 226, Sr.) and weakside linebacker DeAndre Square (6-1, 217, So.) have been liabilities at times this year. Cornerbacks Brandin Echols (5-11, 178, Jr.) and Cedric Dort (5-11, 182, So.) have been good, especially Echols, though true freshman Jordan Griffin (6-1, 196) has been a liability when he’s been in the game. If Griffin is on the field a lot against the Hokies, I would expect Tech to go after him with Damon Hazelton and Tre Turner.
Kentucky’s special teams ranks No. 8 out of 14 teams in the SEC, according to Pro Football Focus. Virginia Tech’s special teams rank No. 2 out of 14 ACC teams. Here’s how Kentucky’s special teams break down according to the FEI special teams ratings…
Overall: No. 25
FG Efficiency: No. 89
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 52
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 23
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 73
Punt Efficiency: No. 1
Kentucky has one of the best punters in the country in Max Duffy, who like Virginia Tech’s Oscar Bradburn, is from Australia. Duffy was this year’s Ray Guy Award winner, which goes to the top punter in the nation.
Here’s how the Hokies rank in the FEI ratings…
Overall: No. 18
FG Efficiency: No. 55
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 38
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 21
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 49
Punt Efficiency: No. 34
There isn’t a big difference in the two special teams units according to FEI, though it’s worth nothing that Tayvion Robinson didn’t take over as VT’s punt returner until late in the season, otherwise Tech’s punt return efficiency ranking would probably rank higher than No. 49. In a game that most people expect to be close, a big play or two on special teams could potentially decide the outcome.
Belk Bowl Final Thoughts and Predictions
As I sit here writing this section of the preview the day after Christmas, it’s odd to me that the Belk Bowl is just a few days away. It has snuck up on me, thanks to Virginia Tech’s flurry of coaching changes to close the regular season. I’ve been much more preoccupied with that since the season ended. As much as we all want to win the Belk Bowl, those coaching changes are much more important for the future of the program than anything that happens in Charlotte.
As far as the game itself goes, I don’t like the matchup of the Virginia Tech offense vs. the Kentucky defense. Brad Cornelsen has done a very good job of designing what I’ve called a “smoke and mirrors” offense to hide Tech’s major weakness: a very young and inexperienced offensive line. It worked just about every week, until UVA had basically three weeks to prepare for those misdirection plays, and they snuffed all of them out. Kentucky’s defensive coaching is excellent, and like the Hoos, they’ll have had the better part of a month to prepare. The Tech offense will have to win this one straight up, and I don’t think they are physically mature enough to do that quite yet.
Kentucky is pretty one-dimensional offensively, but I’m not sure how I feel about that matchup. On the one hand, Bud Foster has had nearly a month to prepare. On the other hand, there are interim coaches running the defensive line and the cornerbacks. Also, how is this game being handled? Is it all Bud Foster, or will Justin Fuente and Foster decide that it’s a good opportunity to Justin Hamilton to shoulder the burden of gameplanning and preparation in an effort to get a jumpstart for next year? Will Tech even have Caleb Farley? I’m not so sure that they will. He recently told Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his status was unknown due to his back injury. I’m thinking that’s a little more serious than a muscle pull.
And of course, there’s the basic knowledge that bowl games can be crap shoots. We don’t know which team wants it the most. We don’t know which team is the most mentally dialed in. We don’t even know that either team particularly cares. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
I’m picking Kentucky for one main reason: like UVA they’ll have had multiple weeks to prepare for Virginia Tech’s misdirection. With so many young players up front, some of which who haven’t even been through a college strength and conditioning program yet, I can’t see the Tech offense doing enough straight up against that massive Kentucky defense. Power 5 teams only averaged 19.2 points per game against Kentucky this year. FBS teams with winning records averaged just 20 points per game. On the other hand, FBS teams with winning records only averaged 19.3 points per game against Virginia Tech’s defense. I’m not expecting offensive fireworks in this one, though as we all know bowl games can be a roll of the dice.
As far as my confidence level of that pick goes, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a magic 8-ball and 10 being “take it to the bank”, I’m at about a 1.5 or 2.
Chris’s Prediction: Kentucky 24, Virginia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: I just went back and looked at my prediction record for the season, and I’m only 6-6 this year. According to TSL picks database keeper Jeff Holland (Virginia Tech defensive tackle, lettered 1993-1995), I’m in danger of my worst year ever. I went 7-6 in both 2014 and 2015, so if I’m wrong here, it’s my first losing record in 15 years of picking games.
Here we are for the bowl game pick-em, where things are often a crapshoot. Not always, mind you. I remember knowing that UCLA was going to truck the Hokies, and that wound up happening, especially once Logan Thomas was knocked out of the game. But that’s the only bowl game I recall where I had a very strong feeling about what was going to happen, and I was also right.
That’s a couple of paragraphs of CYA, so let’s get to the pick. I’ve never seen anything like this Kentucky team. In Brandon Patterson’s preview of the Kentucky defense, I came away thinking the Cats can throw anything from a 3-4-4 to a 4-2-5 to a 5-2-4 at you … and will. And as Chris detailed above, they’re huge.
As for the Kentucky offense, I experienced something I’ve never experienced before when writing up the roster card for the game. Lynn Bowden isn’t Kentucky’s leading passer in terms of attempts or yards, but I listed him as their passing stats leader on the card, because he starts for them. Then I listed their top two rushers, where Bowden is their leading rusher. Then I listed their top two receivers … and Bowden is their leading receiver. So that part of the roster card looks like this (red arrows added for emphasis):
I’ve never seen that — a player leading his team in all three categories — in over 15 years of making up roster cards. That’s not any sort of harbinger in either direction, it’s just odd.
Lastly, there is turnover in the Virginia Tech coaching staff. Zohn Burden, Charley Wiles, and Brian Mitchell will not coach in the bowl game. Their responsibilities will be taken on by Adam Lechtenberg (replacing Burden on a permanent basis as RB coach), Zach Sparber (a GA who will coach the DL on an interim basis), and Pierson Prioleau (a Director of Player Development who will coach the cornerbacks on an interim basis). That’s a lot of moving parts and guys doing things for the first time.
I don’t like the uniqueness of the Kentucky challenge both offensively and defensively, combined with Virginia Tech’s coaching staff turnover, and I think the most likely outcome is that Virginia Tech loses this game. I think Kentucky wins, but as the No. 85 scoring offense in the country, it’s not like the Wildcats pile up the points, so just a few plays here and there could swing the outcome. I haven’t been particularly hyped about this game, but now that it’s just a few days off, I’m more into it, and it should be very interesting.
Will’s Prediction: Kentucky 27, Virginia Tech 24