Kentucky (7-5) and Virginia Tech (8-4) will meet in the 2019 Belk Bowl at noon ET on Tuesday, Dec. 31. Find a prediction, preview and more for the game below.
Kentucky-Virginia Tech: 2019 Belk Bowl time, TV channel
Kentucky and Virginia Tech play at noon ET on Tuesday, Dec. 31, from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. The game is on ESPN.
Kentucky-Virginia Tech: Belk Bowl prediction, preview
Questions at the quarterback position surrounded Kentucky and Virginia Tech early in the 2019 season. For the Wildcats, 2018 starter Terry Wilson logged less than two games before a season-ending injury while the Hokies' lacked consistency with Ryan Willis through four games.
Both teams' improvisational ability proved integral to their overall success. Virginia Tech replaced Willis four games in after a 2-2 start. Redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker saw his first collegiate action, going 6-2 to lead the Hokies within a game of an ACC championship appearance while extending the nation's longest-active streak of bowl appearances to 27 consecutive seasons. The Hokies' current run is the third-longest ever, trailing only Nebraska (35, 1969-2002) and Michigan (33, 1975-2006).
After Wilson went down, Kentucky opted for Sawyer Smith to run the offense. However, a three-game skid left UK at 2-3, prompting another change. Wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. was converted to quarterback, leading the 'Cats to bowl eligibility with a 5-2 record while capturing the 2019 Paul Hornung Award. By reaching the Belk Bowl, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops becomes the second coach in program history to reach four straight bowl games.
Tuesday's game between Kentucky and Virginia Tech is the first meeting between the programs since 1987, the year defensive coordinator Bud Foster arrived in Blacksburg. The Hokies were denied the opportunity at an early December game in Charlotte, the site of the ACC championship game. Now, they'll have a chance to send Foster out in his final game at the site of the program's last conference title.
For Virginia Tech to send Foster out with a bang, his defense will have to limit one of college football's most electrifying players in Bowden Jr. His role as a quarterback is more of a title than anything, having thrown for no more than 104 yards in seven starts. He leads Kentucky in receiving yards despite playing the position for five games. After the transition to quarterback, he ran for 1,136 yards, including a 284-yard, four-touchdown outburst in the Wildcats' regular season finale.
Keying in on one player is much easier said than done. But if the Hokies can successfully limit Bowden and slow down a top-five rushing attack, Stoops' defense remained one of the toughest in the SEC despite replacing the conference's 2018 defensive player of the year and an entirely new secondary. The unit allows a touch above 18 points and 324 total yards of total offense per game.
Like Bowden, Virginia Tech will look to its quarterback for guidance. Under Hooker, the Hokies have put up 30-plus points in six of eight games. Overall, the team is 7-1 in 2019 when hitting the 30-point mark. The sophomore has also been tasked with sparking a ground game that's struggled much of the year. Hooker ranks second on the team in carries (111) and rushing touchdowns (five), in addition to his responsibilities throwing the ball.
The Hokies will have their hands full with Bowden on the opposite side of the ball. But Virginia Tech only allows an average of 123 rushing yards per contest, a promising sign that they could potentially keep the Hornung Award winner in check. Winning the trenches would give Virginia Tech the ability to dictate time of possession and force Kentucky to adjust.
Kentucky-Virginia Tech: Stats, how they compare
|7-5 (3-5 SEC)||Record (Conference)||8-4 (5-3 ACC)|
|26.3||Points per game||30.9|
|391. 5||Yards per game||389.8|
|324.3||Yards allowed per game||359.9|
|172.7||Passing yards allowed||236.6|
|151.6||Rushing yards allowed||123.3|
|Sawyer Smith *
690 yards (4 TD, 5 INT)
|Passing yards||Hendon Hooker
1,445 yards (11 TD, 2 INT)
|Lynn Bowden Jr.
1,235 yards (8.2 per att.), 11 TDs
|Rushing yards||Deshawn McClease
717 yards (4.3 per att.), 6 TDs
|Lynn Bowden Jr.
348 yards, 1 TD
|Receiving yards||Tré Turner
542 yards, 4 TD
33 tackles, 9.5 tfl, 6.5 sacks, 7 QBH
|Defensive leader||Caleb Farley
20 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PBU
* – Lynn Bowden Jr. became the starting quarterback on Oct. 12.
Kentucky-Virginia Tech: Prediction
The quarterback revivals at Kentucky and Virginia Tech make this an intriguing matchup. However, the bigger factor in this game could be the defenses. Virginia put up 39 points on Virginia Tech to win the Commonwealth Cup. In the Hokies' other four November games, they allowed 38 total points. Kentucky hasn't given up more than 29 points all season and didn't allowed more than 17 points during its final five games. When points are hard to come by, the edge just may go to whichever team has the top offensive player on the field.
Kentucky 24, Virginia Tech 21