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Gator Bowl Predictions

New Year's Day is the eve of the Gator Bowl.

Kentucky and NC State face off in Jacksonville tomorrow and to help you get ready for the game the Cats Illustrated roundtable returns.

Jeff Drummond, Travis Graf, and Justin Rowland share thoughts on the matchup and offer predictions on the outcome.

What are the main reasons for Kentucky fans to feel optimistic about this game?

Jeff Drummond: In talking to the Kentucky staff and players the last couple of weeks, it sounds like a refreshed team that is eager to go out and play one more time this season. I think that can mean a lot in a bowl game scenario. So many of these matchups over the years come down to who wants to be there the most, and I get the sense that the Cats have something to prove after a frustrating regular season. Although NC State has a much better record than UK, a lot of that has to do with the SEC/ACC schedule dynamics. I feel like the Cats match up fairly well in this one, particularly with the running game. A lot of what the Wolfpack do well defensively feels a bit like smoke and mirrors to me. The sacks and tackles for losses are impressive, but when you look at their entire body of work on that side of the ball, it doesn't add up. I see the Cats being able to control the ball and grind out yards in this one.

Travis Graf: Kentucky crawled to the end of the season and now has had time off to recuperate and refocus. With Vince Marrow calling the plays in this game, the offense could look a little different and more shots could be taken. The players should be playing more loosely than they have in months. NC State doesn’t have a star on the offense, but they’re pretty consistent across the board. Vegas feels pretty good about the ‘Cats, too, with Kentucky listed as a 2.5 point favorite over the top-25 Wolfpack.

Justin Rowland: The defenses that give Kentucky the most trouble are the ones that can stack the box and successfully commit to stopping the run. If Kentucky has to pass, that's where the troubles begin. The good news for Kentucky here is I don't think you can say NC State will definitely be able to stuff the box and stop the run. Virginia Tech and UNC both rushed for 300 yards on them in those blowouts. Georgia Tech rushed for 261 yards and Miami went for 189. The 'Cats should be able to get something going on the ground and we know that's a recipe for UK to create and control its kind of game. On the other side of the ball, NC State is not really a team that pushes you off the ball or blows open big holes. I think if you're Kentucky you would much rather face a team that's more reliant on the pass than a strong ground game. There aren't a lot of matchups here that should scare them too much.

What are the main reasons for concern?

Drummond: Offensively, NC State has the ability to keep you off-balance. The Wolfpack will take some shots down the field and throw it up for grabs with their tall wide receivers and tight end. NC State has a pair of 6-foot-4 wideouts, two others at 6-3 and 6-2, and a 6-7 tight end. The UK defensive backs have to be ready for that challenge. Defensively, if you get into predictable passing situations, the Wolfpack can wreak havoc with their pass rush. They rank 11th nationally with 32 sacks on the season and seventh in tackles for loss with 85, recording more than seven a game with their unorthodox 3-3-5 alignment. You can't get "behind the chains" against this unit.

Graf: NC State has scored 30 or more points in seven games this season. If this turns into a high scoring affair, it could bode well for the Wolfpack. NC State is much more familiar with scoring and getting in position to score than the ‘Cats are. They have had 49 red zone trips, while Kentucky has had just 29. NC State is also more efficient on 3rd and 4th down.

Rowland: Kelvin Joseph opting out means you're without your best cornerback. The best thing NC State does is present you with a number of offensive players who in sum can be difficult to account for. This is not an offense UK can take lightly. On the other side of the ball, Alim McNeill is a pro. The Wolfpack can get after the quarterback. They also make a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Five players have nine or more tackles for loss. So the game keys will be making NC State one dimensional by taking away the run game and picking up blitzes and avoiding missed blocks.

Who will be Kentucky's MVP on Saturday?

Drummond: I'm picking Chris Rodriguez to have a huge game running behind an inspired O-Line playing together for the last time. I think Vince Marrow is going to feed Rodriguez the ball early and often, something that former UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran did not do consistently. The workhorse will respond with his best game of the season.

Graf: I feel like AJ Rose ends his collegiate career with a solid performance of 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Coach Marrow finds a way to hit him on a couple of screen passes as well.

Rowland: I'd like to go with Keaton Upshaw here just because Marrow is serving as the offensive coordinator but realistically this is the same team and thus I'll go with Rodriguez. One of the nation's better backs should find running room against a defense that is vulnerable to the ground game.

What's your prediction for the game's outcome and how it will play out?

Drummond: Kentucky 26, NC State 23. Vegas seems to know something about this matchup, installing the Cats as a narrow favorite despite owning half as many wins as the Wolfpack. I expect a close game but one that UK is able to pull out for its third consecutive bowl game victory and a feel-good ending to what has been a physically and emotionally grueling 2020 season.

Graf: Kentucky 24, NC State 21. The ‘Cats establish the run, but connect on a couple of big passing plays as well. Kentucky covers the spread and the low over/under set by Vegas plays into UK’s favor.

Rowland: Kentucky 27, NC State 23. I'm going with the 'Cats for several reasons. They have a better turnover margin. They are better at controlling the clock. UK has a great senior class with a lot of leadership that has experience winning bowl games and knows how this all works. It will be close and could go either way but I'm not sure NC State is built to take advantage of the Cats' weaknesses. That explains the point spread.