Regardless of the outcome in Saturday’s season finale against South Carolina, the Kentucky football team will finish the 2020 season with a record below .500. In light of the bizarre COVID-19 circumstances, the Wildcats will still be eligible to attend a bowl game, but will they accept an invitation? Mark Stoops casted doubt on that possibility Monday afternoon.
“I am not sure. I really haven’t addressed that yet. I need to visit with our team,” said Kentucky’s head coach.
“I think the biggest thing would be the mindset of our team and to make sure they would be all in and would want to do that. I certainly would want to and I think our staff would and administration. There are going to be a lot of teams playing in bowl games with three or four wins. We need to win this game, that is for sure. But I will address that next week and it will really be the temperature of our football team. I don’t want to go in there half-hearted. I want to go in with an all-in mentality and ready to play and compete.”
Why would UK turn down the chance to play in the postseason? Allow me to address the pros and cons behind Kentucky’s postseason decision.
Pro: Postseason Exposure
As much as critics may dismiss bowl games as exhibitions, people LOVE watching them. Kentucky’s 2018 Citrus Bowl win over Penn State was the most-watched bowl game outside of the New Year’s Six and 2017’s Music City Bowl was the third-most watched non-New Year’s Six game with 4.6 million viewers. Playing in the postseason helps programs expand their brand beyond the scope of the regular season.
Bowl games also come with eye-popping payouts. The two most likely bowl destinations for Kentucky this postseason are the Music City Bowl in Nashville and Liberty Bowl in Memphis, games that carry a $5.7 million and $4.7 million payout, respectively.
That money does not directly go into UK’s athletic budget. It is split among the participating teams and the conference. The SEC caps out member earnings in that range of bowl game at $1.525 million. The conference gives a travel stipend, but expenses pile up quickly once you consider all of the gear, the cost of unpurchased tickets and bonuses awarded to coaches. The oddity of the 2020 season will likely force bowl games to restructure ticket cost and distribution. There’s also no indication that coaches would waive the right to receive lucrative bonuses from playing in the postseason, despite the lackluster regular season record.
Even though there’s a lot of money thrown around at bowl games, teams often lose money. When Kentucky won the 2018 Citrus Bowl, the school raked in $1.77 million for winning the Citrus Bowl while totaling $2.43 million in expenses. In a year where budgets have shrunk across college athletics, playing in a bowl game will more than likely hurt Kentucky’s bottom line more than it helps.
Pro: End the Season with a Win
The decision-makers in Birmingham did Mark Stoops no favors in the scheduling reshuffle. After other schools postponed games due to COVID-19 issues, Kentucky was forced to play three top ten teams in a four-game stretch.
Right now it feels like the sky is falling in Lexington. It’s not so different than what Kentucky fans felt after losing three-straight to Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina in 2019. In retrospect, we will not remember that ugly stretch of the season. Kentucky fans remember watching Lynn Bowden run all over Louisville before winning in walk-off fashion against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Two wins to cap off a difficult season will not completely erase the woes of 2020, but fans will feel better about how it all ended.
Con: Who will be able to play?
Stoops said on Monday that there are 26-27 absences in the Kentucky football facility entering the final week of the season. Even though running back Chris Rodriguez and tight end Justin Rigg are expected to return to action on Saturday, J.J. Weaver suffered a torn ACL while filling in for the “banged up” Jordan Wright and Kelvin Joseph opted out of the remainder of the season.
In addition to missing players, UK’s staff may dwindle. Stoops recently alluded to “moving the program forward” starting next week, which leads many to speculate that will be when Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw are relieved of their duties. Of course, it’s only speculation, but we could see a scenario where Vince Marrow is calling plays in a postseason game.
Pro: Offseason Momentum
Winning at the end of the year does not just make fans feel good. Artificial momentum is created within programs and recruiting circles based on how you finish. Not only do talented recruits get to see what your program has to offer, the bowl practices that predominantly feature the team’s young stars give coaches a sneak peek at what the future holds. That experience for underclassmen is invaluable, particularly a year after Stoops signed his best recruiting class to date that includes Beau Allen and a bevy of talented pass-catchers.
Con: Who wants to still play?
2020 has been difficult for everyone, but even more so for the Kentucky football program. Before the season Chris Oats suffered a medical emergency. The once rising star with all-conference potential was confined to a wheelchair. Shortly after the Wildcats found their feet with a dominant win over Tennessee, John Schlarman, the cornerstone of the Big Blue Wall that helped develop the identity and culture of Stoops’ program, succumbed to his lengthy fight with cancer.
Kentucky’s head coach said “it’s hard to put into words” exactly how emotionally and physically exhausting this year has been for his team.
“I know it’s been definitely one of the most trying times. Certainly, one of the most trying coaching experiences of my life and I’ve been through some tough ones,” Stoops said. “But again, I don’t really want that to be the headline because it’s about the players. I am paid to do this job, I can accept it, I can shoulder it, I’ll be fine. I do care about our players and I do care about their mental and physical well-being. It’s been very trying on them.”
If the Wildcats decide to prematurely call it a season after all they’ve been through, can you blame them?