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Kentucky vs. Virginia Tech: Roundtable and predictions for Belk Bowl

Breaking down Cats vs. Hokies and making predictions for who wins the 2019 Belk Bowl.

intro Drew Brown - A Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats and Virginia Tech Hokies are set to clash in the 2019 Belk Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

The Wildcats enter the game at 7-5 and riding a three-game winning streak. A win over the Hokies would further increase the momentum this program has after making a fourth-straight bowl and securing a top 25 recruiting class.

The Hokies enter Tuesday with an 8-4 record after narrowly losing to Virginia in the regular-season finale, which cost them the ACC Coastal title and a shot at the Orange Bowl. They were briefly ranked in the top 25, and a win over Kentucky could propel them back into the final polls when they’re released.

Ahead of the game, we gathered our staff to discuss the matchup and make predictions.

Clark Brooks

This is a very even matchup as far as ESPN’s SP+ metric is concerned. UK is ranked 37th, and Va Tech is 40th nationally. Furthermore, the offenses rank 65th and 60th with the defenses being 32nd and 38th. Analytically speaking, this is as close to a toss-up as you will find on paper.

But as we know, UK’s offense went under a bit of a transformation in the middle of the year. Since the Lynnsanity Offense debuted, no SEC offense has a higher Explosive Play Rate (18.6%) than the Cats. Largely thanks to Lynn Bowden’s home-run ability and UK leaning hard into what it does best, the Cats were top four in the SEC in Touchdown Rate (6.13%), Success Rate (43.6%), HAVOC Allowed (18.4%), and Yards/Play (6.90) since Week 7.

In the same span, UK’s defense patched the holes that plagued them earlier in the season. No SEC defense against conference opponents did a better job at forcing 3-and-outs or turnovers per play than UK since Week 7. You read that right. No one. Plus, the Cats were a mere 0.09 percentage points away from leading the conference in Overall Defensive Success Rate after their first bye week.

With Va Tech being a bland and run-heavy offense (Hokie QB Hendon Hooker only has 29 more pass attempts on the year than rush attempts), UK needs to be ready to address the Hokies ground game, which is mostly by committee. Va Tech has five guys with over 200 rushing yards but none with more than 750.

Winning in the air is what has allowed UK to be successful in the SEC. The run defense has been not so great since Week 7. No SEC defense misses a higher percentage of tackles against the run than the Cats and their Defensive Rushing Success Rate is below the conference average in that span.

Since both teams are aiming to play old-school led by a run-first approach paired with stingy defenses, I expect this game to be low scoring. Explosive gains will determine this one. With UK’s recent proclivity to pave paths and punish fronts, I’m giving the Cats the edge. Most lines have the Cats as 2.5 point dogs.

Prediction: Kentucky 27, Virginia Tech 21

Jamie Boggs

What a year this has been for Kentucky. Low expectations quickly turned around just in time for the injury bug to seemingly ruin the season. But then Lynn Bowden took off his glasses to show everyone he was superman as he came in to save the day.

Eddie Gran has caught a lot of flak over the years, and after what he did with Bowden at quarterback this season he should get a free pass from Kentucky fans for the next year or two. The development of Kentucky’s offensive success has been a lot of fun to watch, but will it work for a Virginia Tech team that got a month to prepare?

Virginia Tech is good, and they really turned it on toward the end of the season. But the ACC has also proven to be pretty awful. I do think Tech is solid across the board, but I do not see them putting up a lot of points or being about to stop Kentucky’s running game. I believe Gran will throw a few wrinkles into the scheme to catch the Hokies off guard, and Brad White will have the defense prepared for just about anything Virginia Tech can do.

Prediction: Kentucky 27, Virginia Tech 17

Ian Teasley

This is a fairly even matchup and I have, honestly, no clue who will even win this game. I have the utmost confidence in Lynn Bowden and the Kentucky coaching staff to prepare a game plan for a good Virginia Tech defense.

And being that this is VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s last game, I would expect the Hokies to play with a chip on their shoulder, much like I expect Lynn Bowden to play.

However, with the recent events of trash-talking going down between both teams, and Bowden’s refusal to answer any questions surrounding Virginia Tech, I think this game means even more to Kentucky than it does VT.

Prediction: Kentucky 21, VT 17. Lynn Bowden rushes for over 200 yards again.

Nick Wheatley

There are a couple of interesting storylines in play here that could affect the outcome of this game.

The first is Lynn Bowden. It’s his final game at Kentucky, and he’s been one of the best and most versatile players in the country this season.

The second is Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster. Foster is from Somerset, Kentucky, and he played football and coached for the Murray State Racers. Further, he’s been at VT for over 30 years now, and he’s finally retiring from his defensive coordinator position following this season. So, it’s his final game for the Hokies.

Believe it or not, these kinds of storylines can truly affect the outcome of a game, providing extra motivation, confidence, and effort.

With that being said, Virginia Tech is a solid defensive team, especially against the run. As field-goal favorites, the Hokies should be confident coming into this one. However, their defense appears to have a major flaw, which falls right into Kentucky’s lap. That’s running quarterbacks.

Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins laid the blueprint for the Cats coming into this one. In the last game of the regular season, Perkins ran the ball 19 times for 164 yards and two touchdowns, while also throwing for 311 yards and another touchdown. Duke Blue Devils quarterback Quentin Harris also ran for 100 yards against VT. And there are other less elusive quarterbacks that have done well against the Hokies.

We all know that means bad news for Tech with Bowden at quarterback. While the VT offense has been slightly better than UK’s this season, they’ve also played a much weaker ACC schedule, which comes with much weaker defenses.

I think this is a good matchup for the Cats and I expect them to not only cover the spread but to come out on top.

Prediction: Kentucky 31, Virginia Tech 17

Dan Harris

The fact that this is Bud Foster’s last game for the Hokies looms large. The legendary defensive coordinator has had several weeks to devise a scheme to stop Kentucky’s vaunted rushing attack — Lynn Bowden specifically — and there is no doubt his players will be highly motivated to give the coach a winning sendoff.

Having said that, Kentucky’s running attack has been a handful for all others who have faced it. Currently, Virginia Tech hold opponents to a very respectable 123.3 yards per game rushing (27th nationally); however, UK’s revamped offense has had consistent success against other highly ranked rushing defenses (160 yards against a Georgia defense that allows 75.7/game, 297 against Missouri allowing 132.8, and 302 against Tennessee that averages 145.8).

Even with the added incentive, don’t count on Tech to completely stop a Bowden-led rushing attack. And you never know: the Hokies rank a paltry 87th in passing yards allowed, so don’t be too surprised is Sawyer Smith is called upon to dust off his potent arm in a pinch.

Defensively, the Cats have been solid all year, and the last five games have held opponents to less than 20 points, including Tennessee (17) and Louisville (13) teams that are ranked higher offensively than Virginia Tech. That should hold up in this game.

Overall, even with the added incentive of Bud Foster’s last game, the Cats should have enough weapons and, perhaps more importantly, stamina to outlast the Hokies. Expect a tough contest through the first half until Kentucky’s big, years in the making offensive and defensive lines begin to wear down an inspired Virginia Tech team.

Prediction: Kentucky 27, Virginia Tech 17

Adam Haste

Kentucky is set to take on Virginia Tech tomorrow in what is their 4th straight bowl game appearance, and they will be looking for their 2nd bowl win under Mark Stoops.

Going into the game, I fully expect Kentucky to be able to run the ball with a ton of success. We have seen it ever since Lynn Bowden took over at QB.

They have had success on the ground against some of the SEC’s toughest defenses and I don’t see Virginia Tech being able to slow it down either.

With the being said, I think that this was slated to be a very close battle coming down to the very end.

However, some Virginia Tech players made a big mistake when they decided to confront Bowden and talk trash to his face while at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and then proceed to post it on social media.

I believe that Kentucky is going to be mad when this game kicks off, have a chip on their shoulder and they will want to dominate from start to finish.

And that’s exactly what I think will happen.

Prediction: Kentucky 35, Virginia Tech 17