What a wild ride it was late in the season for Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats football program.
After what most would describe as an underwhelming season, the year ended with a bang as the Cats destroyed their rivals New Year’s Six bowl hopes, beating the Louisville Cardinals 38-31.
Despite a monster win to finish off the year, the real fireworks came off the field in the hours to follow.
Rumors had already begun to swirl before the ball was even kicked off on November 25th at Louisville, and most folks who were following the situation fully understood that Mark Stoops would have a big decision to make quickly following its conclusion.
By now, we all know how that ended.
For the first time, Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart spoke about the wild weekend and his relief that Mark Stoops stayed in Lexington.
“I’m thankful that it worked out the way it did, and we’re good,” Barnhart told Jon Hale of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “We just keep going on. We try to achieve some things we want to achieve. It’s going to get harder next year with the conference expanding and all that. We understand all that, but right now, the focus is on getting to Jacksonville and trying to find a win in the bowl game.”
Speaking of which, Kentucky has a big matchup with the No. 22 Clemson Tigers on December 29th in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, easily one of the biggest non-New Year’s Six bowls.
In fact, it’s the sixth oldest college bowl and the first one ever televised nationally.
Safe to say it’s better than facing someone like Duke or Virginia Tech in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, which is where seemingly everyone projected Kentucky to end up.
However, Kentucky got a pleasant surprise when the bowls were finally announced, and it turns out that Barnhart had a hand in making it happen.
This, according to Larry Vaught, who interviewed John Showalter, a member of the Gator Bowl committee.
Here’s an excerpt of the report.
One reason for Showalter’s optimism was Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart’s relationship with Greg McGarity, president and CEO of Gator Bowl Sports. McGarity was athletics director at Georgia from 2010 to 2020.
“There are people that lobby the bowl committee and some have more clout than others,” Showalter said. “Mitch knows Greg McGarity, who hired Kirby Smart at Georgia. We talk a lot to athletic directors on our scouting trips to maintain relationships.
“Mitch did a great job communicating with Greg about how much Kentucky wanted to be part of our bowl game and that’s important to us. All that factors in and Mitch assured us Kentucky wanted to come and would be a good fit for us. His lobbying carries weight.”
A big win in Jacksonville would go a long way in what’s seemingly an important offseason for Stoops and his staff.
All eyes will be on the transfer portal and watching the development of Liam Coen’s second-year offense.
It’s been obvious that Barnhart and the University’s administration believe in Stoops and want him around as long as possible. It was no surprise that the AD echoed that sentiment.
The Cats are floating around a five-point underdog with a noon kickoff and anticipated sunny skies. Clemson and Kentucky will bring a crowd, so it should be a good farewell to the 2023 season.